“The public mind was awake” in Rhode Island, wrote Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895), “and one class of its people at least was ready to work with us to the extent of seeking to defeat the proposed constitution,” which would disenfranchise Black men. When news broke that the People’s Party had voted to exclude Black men from the vote, much to the chagrin of Thomas Wilson Dorr, abolitionists like Douglass and Abby Kelley flocked to Rhode Island to protest.
The road to Rhode Island proved challenging for Douglass, as travel posed a particular set of dangers for African Americans. He remembers being dragged out of his seat several times for “the crime of being colored.” And, he was forced to sleep on the deck of the ship, while his fellow white abolitionists were welcomed in the cabin below.
The abolitionists quickly discovered their task would be a difficult one. Douglass writes that “the contest was intensely bitter and exciting. We were as usual denounced as intermeddlers . . . and were told to mind our own business, and the like, a mode of defense common to men when called to account for mean and discreditable conduct.” But Douglass and his compatriots were not so easily dismissed. “We cared nothing for the Dorr party on the one hand, or the ‘law and order party’ on the other. What we wanted, and what we labored to obtain, was a constitution free from the narrow, selfish, and senseless limitation of the word white.”
The new constitution adopted in 1843, which included suffrage for Black men, was a victory for abolitionists like Douglass. Reflecting on their impact, Douglass wrote in 1881 that “our labors in Rhode Island during this Dorr excitement did more to abolitionize the State than any previous or subsequent work.”
Note on Location: Woonsocket hosted the Anti-Slavery Convention in the fall of 1841.