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28 October 2014
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abolition

Equiano
Equiano

Building Freedom in Birmingham

By Dr Andy Green
Local historian Andy Greens, explains how Birmingham was a part of the anti-slavery movement.

It is important to remember in 2007 that ‘abolition’ movements did not emerge fully formed from the few select individuals recently chosen to have their faces commemorated on stamps, such as William Wilberforce. In 2007 we should be aiming at recovering some of the less well known, but equally important, stories of resistance.

Women's anti-slavery album
Women's anti-slavery album

In A Century of Birmingham Life (1870), J.A. Langford states that “Every Birmingham man will rejoice to learn that this town took an active part in the noblest philanthropic labour of the age- the Abolition of the Slave Trade’. Highlighting Birmingham’s involvement in the landmark act of 1807, Langford continues,

‘the efforts of Granville Sharp, of Wilberforce, of Clarkson were ably seconded in this town by worthies such as Dr. Priestley, the Rev. C. Curtis, the Rev. Spencer Madan, the Rev. J. Riland, Matthew Boulton, Charles Lloyd, Samuel Garbett, William Russell, and others.”  

So while many Birmingham manufacturers undoubtedly profited from slavery, the area was also home to many men and women who passionately campaigned for social justice, including Quakers, Baptists and Unitarians, as well as a significant number of visiting black abolitionists who led the protest against the inhumanity of the trade. 

Canon Street Church

Joseph Priestley whose ‘Sermon Against the Slave Trade’ was written in Birmingham in 1788, was a Unitarian minister connected to Birmingham’s ‘Lunar Society’. This was a loosely associated group of late eighteenth century scientists, intellectuals, writers and industrialists which also included Thomas Day, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

These men were all concerned by social progress, to which the continuing presence of the slave trade was a disgraceful and embarrassing obstacle. Significantly, it would be another ‘Lunar’ member called Josiah Wedgwood (the potter based at Stoke on Trent) who designed the famous ‘Am I Not A Man and a Brother’ medallion in 1787. 

However, in a multicultural city like Birmingham, it is fundamentally important that we recognize not only the contribution of local antislavery activists and organizations, but also the long and courageous legacy of black activism to which the history of our city is greatly indebted. We find the cultural diversity that is now so powerfully woven into the very heart of the West Midlands, strongly echoed in its antislavery heritage.

Frederick Douglas
Frederick Douglas

For instance, the ‘Lunar Society’ may have been strongly influenced by Olaudah Equiano, who visited Birmingham in 1790 to promote his antislavery autobiography called ‘An Interesting Life’. Significantly, a new exhibition to Equiano’s life will open in the Birmingham Art Gallery in September 2007. His visit to the area can be seen as the starting point for an ongoing history of black abolitionists who came to talk in Birmingham, including Frederick Douglas, James Watkins, Moses Roper, J.C.Pennington, Henry Highland Garnett and the Rev. Peter Stanford. 

We also need to remember that the passing of the 1807 act did not end slavery itself; nor did it end antislavery activity in Birmingham. In 1826, a new generation of local activists would be led by the Quaker Joseph Sturge (whose monument still stands at Five Ways island) to form the Birmingham Anti-Slavery Society. This would aim for the complete and ‘immediate’ abolition of the ongoing right to own slaves in the colonies.

In the same period, the contribution made by women to the antislavery cause became a national phenomenon. It would be in Birmingham where the first of these women’s societies began. Without the substantial money raised by ‘The Female Society for Birmingham’ founded in 1825 by Sue Townsend and Lucy Thompson, many antislavery campaigns would not have been funded.

Joseph Sturge Statue
Joseph Sturge Statue

Making these connections shows that at no point did the slave trade go unchallenged in Birmingham. To stand by the Town Hall where so many antislavery rallies took place is to be part of a civic vision of social progress that can be traced back to the antislavery principles of the men and women who sought to build Birmingham in a freer world. The fact that the slave trade continues in numerous illegal guises today should make us consider the role Birmingham still has to play in campaigning for social justice.

For more information on this subject, you can also now visit the new ‘Connecting Histories’ website. Dedicated to highlighting Birmingham’s diverse past and present, ‘Campaigning for Social Justice’ in the ‘Learning’ section includes accounts of antislavery societies and information on black abolitionists. The ‘Collections’ page also contains a link to ‘further slavery/antislavery resources’ in Birmingham Central Library).

CONNECTING HISTORIES

For more information on Birmingham and the Slave Trade go to:

www.connectinghistories.org.uk


All images reproduced by permission of the 'Connecting Histories Project', Birmingham Central Library.

last updated: 12/03/07
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Abolition


Abolition - 1807

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