How We Selected Abolitionists for the Emancipation Bells

From the very first moment the red stain of slavery blotted America’s shores, there have been people who stood against it. For hundreds of years and across both the North and South, an interracial movement of free persons, galvanized by the resistance of enslaved persons and freedom seekers, labored to eradicate slavery.

Cover image: William Lloyd Garrison (front middle, holding a bouquet) poses for a photograph after a gathering of the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends, 1865. Courtesy: Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections.

Criteria for inclusion

How do you distill countless individuals across centuries of American history into a short list of names to cast into bronze? We approached the challenge with respect and attentiveness. First, we defined abolitionism as the movement to end slavery and an abolitionist as anyone who worked to effect that change through one or more of the following activities:

  • Publisher, editor, or author of a newspaper, journal, pamphlet, article, or book
  • Public speaker, orator, or educator
  • Politician, religious leader, or community organizer
  • Philanthropist or donor to the antislavery movement
  • Contributor to the Underground Railroad or a vigilance committee 
  • Founder or member of an abolitionist organization

We then established a set of criteria against which potential abolitionists could be examined. Foremost, we wanted to highlight incredible Black abolitionists whom historical discussions so often neglect. White abolitionists generally had fewer barriers and more resources in their work. Abolitionists considered for inclusion in the 52 carillon bells:

  • Must have been alive and campaigning prior to January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
  • Must be Black.
  • Must be an active campaigner for abolition, not reactive or passive. 
  • May be couples, families, or groups; not just individuals.
  • May have espoused violence as a means to an end.
  • Must not have focused their work on emigration (resettlement of former slaves to colonies in Africa or the Caribbean).

Abolitionists considered for inclusion in the 10 peal bells: 

  • Must have been alive and campaigning prior to January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
  • Must be non-Black.
  • Must be an active campaigner for abolition or someone who facilitated Black abolitionists’ work. 
  • May be couples, families, or groups; not just individuals.
  • Must not have focused their work on emigration.

Couples and siblings who most often worked together on antislavery causes are featured on the same bell. Those who had independent abolitionist achievements are apart.

It was important to us as an organization that the abolitionists selected should come from all corners of America, not just abolitionist centers like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. We wanted a close parity of men and women represented in the Emancipation Bells and particularly sought abolitionists who coupled antislavery activities with demands for racial equality and justice.

With these parameters in place, we then invited the public and select organizations to nominate abolitionists, while researching and compiling our own set of names for consideration. A dedicated working group within the Emancipation Bells Campaign Cabinet made the final abolitionist selections with input from historian contributors and abolitionist scholars.

Throughout the process, the National Bell Festival received invaluable direction from notable historical organizations, including the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the National Women’s History Museum.

Image: Frederick Douglass in his study at Cedar Hill. Courtesy: National Park Service, Museum Management Program and Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Bringing their voices together

The result of our deliberations was a list of 51 Black abolitionists and 10 allies to the cause. An additional bell, the largest in the carillon, is dedicated to freedom seekers – those men and women who took control of their own destiny by leaving their enslaver. Some of the most enigmatic and brave freedom seekers, like Dred Scott and Ellen Craft, gave the abolitionist movement tangible, first-hand accounts of the evils of slavery and helped inspire others to take up the abolitionist cause. Explore the abolitionists of the Emancipation Bells.

The abolitionists represented in the Emancipation Bells dedicated their time, their fortunes, and, in some cases, their lives to establish true liberty and justice for all. Did each of these abolitionists lead blameless lives? Absolutely not. But their contributions to the work of emancipation should be preserved and their unique contributions discussed and debated.
 

What do you think?

Is there an abolitionist you’d like to see represented in the Emancipation Bells? How do you feel about abolitionists who used violence as a means to an end? What about individuals who championed the cause publicly, but had rather complicated personal lives? Send us your thoughts and keep the bells of freedom ringing!

Image: Harriet Tubman (far left) stands with a group of family and neighbors at her home in Auburn, New York, in 1887. Seated to her left is Nelson Davis, Harriet Tubman's second husband who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad in 1861. Between them stands Gertie Davis, an adopted daughter.