The worn wooden collection box, passed from hand to hand, slowly made its way through the crowded Quaker meeting. Many looked away, while some murmured angrily . . . radicals . . . disturbing the peace! A few people contributed coins, perhaps moved by the plaintive sentiments inscribed on the plain wooden box of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society.
Founded in 1836, the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society tirelessly advocated for the rights of African Americans – with limited success. Despite New England’s reputation as a hotbed of abolitionist activity, the efforts of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society were far from welcome in a state whose economic interests were closely interwoven with slavery. Southern plantation owners supplied Rhode Island’s textile industry with raw materials like cotton and indigo. In return, many mills produced low-quality, inexpensive fabrics – generically marketed as “negro cloth” – deemed suitable for clothing enslaved peoples. Rhode Island also had strong social ties to the south. A number of plantation owners summered with their families in luxurious Newport mansions, and intermarriage with Rhode Island residents was not uncommon. For many Rhode Island elites, it was easy to condemn the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society as a radical, fringe organization.
The most egregious offense of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society was their call for “immediate, unconditional, and universal” emancipation. At the time, many abolitionists favored “gradualism” or the slow emancipation of slaves over many years. Instead, the Rhode Island organization supported the views of Bostonian William Lloyd Garrison, who, from 1831 until 1865, published The Liberator, a highly controversial newspaper. Due to some states’ laws banning any anti-slavery speech, it was not unheard of for people to even be arrested for possessing an issue of The Liberator.
The Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society’s decision to ally themselves with the radical “Garrisonian abolitionists” cost them the support of some other anti-slavery supporters. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, most Quaker meetings banned their members from owning slaves and advocated for gradual emancipation. As the abolitionist community became more divided, however, some Quaker meetings began to expel radical Garrisonian abolitionists from their ranks. In Rhode Island, abolitionist Elizabeth Buffum Chace didn’t wait to be banned from the congregation – when her Quaker meeting refused to take a more radical and active stance against slavery, she stopped attending meetings, turning all of her attention to the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society.
Chace became a tireless advocate for immediate emancipation, even harboring fugitive slaves in her own home. She and other women managed most of the day-to-day aspects of running the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society, particularly after a scandal and political conflict weakened the organization’s male leadership. As fellow abolitionist Daniel Mitchell remarked: “I must say that it is mainly by their efforts that the office is sustained…The devotion of these women to the cause of suffering humanity is probably second to none, and none labor more assiduously for its support than does this little band.”