106: African Americans in Britain 1850-1866

Locating information about African Americans and their children in Britain between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the military defeat and occupation of the Confederate slavery states reveals that we know few details of the children and the lives led by those who have not been documented in abolitionist struggles, so this paper (presented at Senate House, London University on 4 December 2012) has a focus on them as refugees here in Britain. Frederick Douglass will be the subject of Hannah Murray’s talk at Senate House in January 2013; other active black abolitionists in Britain have been well studied by Richard Blackett (Building an Antislavery Wall of 1983 and Beating Against the Barriers of 1986).
Considerable efforts were made in Britain to gather support against U.S. slavery, with books, leaflets, public meetings, sermons, discussions and letters reaching out way beyond the cities – you need a good atlas to locate where African Americans spoke of their experiences – Stoney Middleton near Bakewell (Derbyshire) in 1856; Loughborough in 1852, Chipping Norton (Oxon), Uppermill near Saddleworth on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, and Slaithwaite (all 1853), as well as Ventnor (Isle of Wight) and Duns in the Scottish borders, and Ockham (Surrey) in 1851. The impact of these efforts probably influenced more people than read the new books of anthropology and scientific racism, but the latter still sit in libraries and hunting down a black speaker in small town Britain is less easy.
The 1875 gravestone of Joseph Freeman in Chelmsford, Essex with the 1871 census reveal he was born in slavery in New Orleans, married a Lincolnshire woman named Sarah in 1849, and they had six children, the oldest working with his father in an iron works until the latter’s death in 1875 aged 45. Another African American family is that of Robert James Harlan, whose daughter Laura died from tuberculosis in London, as reported in the Morning Post 1 March 1861. Her father was a famous horse breeder and well known at British race tracks (his horses won two races at Doncaster in 1859). He left Britain in 1868 and was active in black politics until his death in 1897. A larger family, which settled in Britain in 1851, was that of William Powell who “had come to this country to procure for his children that education and means of supporting themselves” denied them in the U.S.A. (Freeman’s Journal, Dublin 8 February 1851). William Powell junior qualified as a doctor and the Medical Directory 1859 p 667 notes he had worked as a temporary surgeon at the Liverpool South hospital and was house surgeon at St Anne’s district hospital. He was one of about a dozen black doctors in the Union forces in the civil war, but returned to Lancashire where in 1902 he registered the death of his barrel maker brother Isaiah – and died in Liverpool on 12 April 1916.
College tutor William G. Allen fled the U.S.A. when he married a white student; he taught in Dublin then London into the 1870s. Clarissa and Josephine Brown trained in Calais and London, and were teaching in 1854 – Clarissa in Berden, Essex and her sister in Plumstead, Woolwich advising “both my assistant and pupils are all white”. Ellen and William Craft were illiterate (a condition forced on blacks by slave owners) but she was skilled with her needle and he was a carpenter, and they first studied then taught at the village school in Ockham, Surrey then raising their six British-born children in Hammersmith, London.
All manner of Britons offered support, including a street trader who advised George Washington and his father (clad in Confederate uniforms in London in 1863) to beg in Whitehall. The magistrate dismissed the charges against them. Aristocrats including the fabulously wealthy Duchess of Sutherland welcomed African Americans into their grand homes: recitalist Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was one (1853). She sang before Queen Victoria (May 1854). Mary Webb gave a reading of The Christian Slave for the Sutherlands in 1856. Her husband Frank Webb had his novel The Gairies and their Friends published in London in 1857. The pair went to Jamaica where he had employment in the post office (through Victoria’s son-in-law the Duke of Argyll). She died there in 1859 and he left for the U.S.A. in 1869.
Alexander Crummell studied at Queen’s College, Cambridge in the early 1850s (his wife Sarah and children were with him – one son died in England; three daughters were born 1849-1852). He was a minister in the Church of England and before migrating to Liberia, West Africa, Crummell was to be seen in Anglican churches. John Sella Martin became a nonconformist minister in east London’s Bromley where workers at Harper Twelvetrees’s huge factory collected money which enabled Martin to purchase the liberty of his sister and her two children (they settled in Jamaica). James Pennington was a Prebyterian, and obtained money from co-religionists in Duns, Berwickshire, to purchase his liberty from the man in Maryland who owned him. Pennington supported the free produce movement, an attempt to have sugar and cotton produced by free people and so undermine slave production. From time to time refugees are seen at the same moment: Pennington was at a public meeting in Rhyl, North Wales on 13 January 1862 with the author of Narrative of Events in the Life of J. H. Banks, an Escape Slave, From the Cotton State of Alabama published in Liverpool and edited by Pennington. Banks wanted to go to Australia.
Francis Fedric is noted as running a lodging house in Manchester, planning a temperance hotel and promoting teetotalism in Dundee in 1861, and thinking of running a business in Bristol. His Life and Sufferings was published in Birmingham in 1859; another book in London in 1863. Some refugees took advantage of the gullibility of the British, collecting for worthy causes that did not exist – William Watson who was widely reported in 1856-1858 (see Bradford Observer 15 October 1856 and the Standard London, 3 December 1858). Two young women were judged to be cheats – but were not penalised (see The Times 18 November and 9 December 1857 both p 11; Morning Post 26 November 1857, p 7). Frederick Williams was sent to prison for three months in Ipswich at the end of 1861, for stealing a watch (Ipswich Journal, 4 January 1862).
Stowaways Tom Wilson (The Times 25 February 1858) and “Josephine” (Liverpool Mercury, 18 and 20 February 1856) were black. The latter was assisted by Dr Powell’s father (who worked as a clerk in a Liverpool shipping office). Almost nothing is known about Josephine, or indeed the Powell children other than the doctor, but we know more about the Craft children, for all five of them went to school in England, with both William junior and Brougham remaining to complete their studies when, with Ellen Craft’s mother, they went to the U.S.A. in 1869. William Ivens Craft returned to London, married, had four children (he died in west London in 1926) and eight of his descendants attended the 4 December 2012 talk. The father died in Charleston, South Carolina in 1900 at the home of his daughter Ellen’s doctor husband, Dr William Crum. Twelve years later that Ellen Crum (born in England of course) attended the London marriage of her brother’s daughter Ellen. A century later in the papers of the Crum family two documents of 1866 addressed to Ellen Craft were deposited in a library. One was from African American actor Ira Aldridge, who settled in England in the 1820s and was at this time often on tour in eastern Europe; the other was from his Swedish wife. Two of their daughters lived well into the 20th century.
Using the Hammersmith, west London address of the Crafts on 13 October 1866 was another African American, actor S. Morgan Smith. He and his wife Mary Eliza settled nearby at Shaftesbury Road, and she died there on 6 October 1867. There was a son. We know little about the Smiths (he died in Sheffield in March 1882), nor the fate of this boy. In fact the whole of our ignorance of this African American presence in mid-19th century Britain can be seen in yet another individual, James Watkins. His Narrative of the Life of James Watkins was published in 1852 and a third edition in Birmingham in 1853. In March 1854 Watkins told an audience in Sheffield that his wife and three children were on their way to Britain but had been delayed, refused passage on an American ship as his wife “was tinged with African blood”. She was with him in Barnsley in June 1854. But we do not know the fate of the three children, nor their mother’s name.

See also page 118 on this site.

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