Happy Birthday, John Jones!

John Jones, portrait by Mosher & Baldwin, 1882, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

When I visited Springfield, Illinois this summer, I found a very interesting plaque at the Old State House downtown. It told the story of John Jones and his activism against Illinois’s Black Laws, a set of legal codes that pertained only to black people, and, as you likely and immediately supposed,  were terribly oppressive. Such laws have a long history in the United States and as long as they’ve been around, lovers of justice have been around to fight them. John Jones was one such person.

Born on November 3rd, 1816 to an American black mother and German white father, Jones had to make his own way early in the world. Jones’ mother did not trust his father to do right by his son so she apprenticed him to a tailor when he was very young. The resourceful Jones taught himself to read and write and, having learned what he needed to, he released himself from the tailor’s service by age 27. He then obtained official free papers for himself and his wife, née Mary Jane Richardson, and secured their freedom to live and travel by posting a $1,000 bond in 1844. While he and his wife were both born free, they had to worry about the numerous ‘fugitive’ slave catchers and kidnappers prowling around, all too happy to capture as many black persons as they could get ahold of, passing them off as escaped slaves in exchange for a substantial payoff.

The Joneses moved to Chicago from Alton, Illinois in 1845, where there was an established community of black entrepreneurs and therefore, more opportunities for families such as theirs. Jones worked hard and savvily, building up a very successful tailoring business and amassing an impressive fortune within just a few years. The Joneses used their success to help their fellow black citizens, making their home one of the key Chicago stops on the Underground Railroad. Jones poured much of his money and time into civil rights activism, working for the abolitionist cause and to overturn the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the already decades-old Black Laws of Illinois, sometimes with his fellow autodidact and activist Frederick Douglass. For the rest of his life, Jones was a prominent intellectual, moral, religious, and political leader in the black community of Chicago and beyond.

Learn more about the courageous civil rights leader John Jones at:

John Jones (1816–1879): Activist, politician, tailor, entrepreneur  ~ by Jessie Carney Smith for Encyclopedia.com

Jones, John ~ by Cynthia Wilson for Blackpast.org

Historical placard for John Jones, Old State House, Springfield, Illinois

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Happy Birthday, Amy Cassey!

Joseph and Amy Cassey historical marker, Old Town Philadelphia, 2015 Amy Cools

Amy Cassey, anti-slavery and civil rights activist, was born in New York City on August 14, 1808. Born Amy Williams to an elite family, she married a wealthy Philadelphia businessman named Joseph Cassey in 1825. This partnership was very happy and fruitful, and the Casseys used their wealth and prestige to do much good, particularly in the antislavery movement. She outlived her husband, who was twenty years her senior, and married Charles Lenox Remond, a mutual friend and co-activist of herself and Frederick Douglass (and namesake of one of his children), continuing her work until her death on August 15, 1856, just one day after her birthday.

I couldn’t find any images of Amy Cassey or her first husband, but there are many of Remond who, by the way, had particularly awesome hair.

Amy and Joseph Cassey House at 243 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA

Learn more about this great woman:

Amy Matilda Cassey Album – a treasure trove of poetry, drawings, and various writings by herself and many famous human rights activists of her time, from the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Cassey, Amy Matilda Williams (1808-1856) – by Janine Black for Black Past

A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (selections) – Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Yale University Press, 2008

Cassey House – in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond, Rhythmic Quietude, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau is the American philosopher and writer best known for two books, On Walden Pond and Civil Disobedience.

The first is about simplifying your life so as to find what it’s really all about, the second promotes breaking the law in protest when the state does wrong (think Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail). Walden tells of Thoreau’s experiences and observations living a simple life in a cabin for two years, where he seeks to clear his mind of the encumbrances and distractions of life in society and focus on immersion in nature and the life of the mind. Civil Disobedience is an essay prompted by Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery and of America’s starting a war to seize land from the Mexican government.

Here’s a list of resources, short but sweet, to introduce you to his life and work if you haven’t been already or would like a refresher. Not all are complimentary, but that’s good: we learn much from the debate over his ideas, too.

Henry David Thoreau‘, from American Transcendentalism Web

Henry David Thoreau‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Popova, Maria. ‘Happy Birthday, Thoreau: The Beloved Philosopher on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice‘ and ‘The Spirit of Sauntering: Thoreau on the Art of Walking and the Perils of a Sedentary Lifestyle‘ in Brainpickings.org

Schultz, Kathryn. ‘Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.’ The New Yorker, Oct 19th 2015.

The Thoreau Reader: Annotated works of Henry David Thoreau – Three complete books and four essays, annotated copies of Walden and Civil Disobedience, and more…

West, Stephen. Henry David Thoreau. Episode 83 of Philosophize This podcast

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, ca. 1855

Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.

She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.

Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’

Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in spring 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe wrote this card to.

Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:

Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: BiographyPoetry Foundation

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The “Woman’s Rights” Man: A New Book on Women in Frederick Douglass’s World, by Ibram X. Kendi

Left: Leigh Fought, image Le Moyne College; right, Anna Douglass, image Library of Congress

The author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass is Leigh Fought. Professor Fought is an associate professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She was an associate editor on the first volume of Frederick Douglass’s correspondence at the Frederick Douglass Papers, published by Yale University Press in 2009. Her previous books includes Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa McCord (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and Mystic, Connecticut: From Pequot Village to Tourist Town (History Press, 2006). Professor Fought earned her Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Houston and a Master of Library Science degree from Simmons College in Boston.

In his extensive writings, Frederick Douglass revealed little about his private life. His famous autobiographies present him overcoming unimaginable trials to gain his freedom and establish his identity—all in service to his public role as an abolitionist. But in both the public and domestic spheres, Douglass relied on a complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, slave-mistresses and family, political collaborators and intellectual companions, wives and daughters. The great man needed them throughout a turbulent life that was never so linear and self-made as he often wished to portray it.In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass’s varied relationships with white women—including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing—who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women’s movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. She also considers Douglass’s relationship with his daughter Rosetta, who symbolized her parents’ middle class prominence but was caught navigating between their public and private worlds. Late in life, Douglass remarried to a white woman, Helen Pitts, who preserved his papers, home, and legacy for history.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed “woman’s rights man.”

In this well-researched and richly textured book, Leigh Fought gives us a fascinating new view into the life and times of one our most famous and revered figures: Frederick Douglass. As he freely acknowledged, women helped make Douglass the man he became. So we, too, are in debt to the women whose stories come so vividly alive in these pages.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principle findings or arguments of the book? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?

Leigh Fought: Frederick Douglass would not have become one of the greatest black activists of the nineteenth century without the work of women. This was not the cliché “behind every great man is a woman.” Women played a central role in his intellectual development, his independence as a man and activist, his economic well-being, his challenge to racial stereotypes and prohibitions, and the persistence of his place in history.

When I started this project, I was simply interested in finding more about all of these women who seemed as fascinated by Douglass as I was, except that they actually knew him. I also thought that the project would be synthetic. As it turned out, others had expressed little curiosity about most of the women themselves, with the exception of those women who merited their own biographies. Then, as I began to reconstruct the lives of the women from original research in order to explain their interaction with Douglass, I began to see a feminine space around him, much like the concept of a “negative space” in art. That feminine space, like most feminine spaces, was where the real action took place. If you want to know about a life, that is the place you have to investigate.

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, readers will meet a host of fascinating, resourceful women, some of whom might otherwise remain footnotes. The women featured in this book had the most dramatic influence on Douglass’s life, but they also had their own agendas and contexts that explain the ebb and flow of their relationships with Douglass, as well as his respect for or sympathy with them. The abuse suffered by slave women and the capitulation of white women to the institution of slavery shaped his childhood, laying the foundation for the man he became. In his adulthood, each woman at some point formed a partnership with Douglass to advance a cause against racism that extended beyond abolition and the end of slavery. His relationships with all of these women exposed the variety of ways that gender and race were employed as tools of oppression. At the same time, he and they mobilized their resistance along those very same lines. While the story of women in Douglass’s world does not preclude other actors or influences in his life, by bringing them into focus their biographies add nuance and deeper understanding to his.

This piece was originally published at Black Perspectives, the blog of the AAIHS, on May 1st, 2017, the release date of Ms. Fought’s book

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. He is the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In August, Kendi begins a new position as Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1

Statue and quote at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Statue and quote at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Thirteenth Day, Friday April 1st

I begin at Cedar Hill in Anacostia, Frederick Douglass’ handsome, gabled house on a hill overlooking Washington DC. He moved here with Anna and the kids in September of 1878, having lived in the capital city of Washington for a little over six years. In a sense, the Douglasses didn’t really move out of Washington when they moved into their new suburban home east of the Anacostia River. Anacostia, called Uniontown in the mid-1800’s then switched back again, was part of the District of Columbia, which in turn was larger than Washington and encompassed it. When the boundaries of Washington and the District of Columbia became one and the same in 1878, the Douglasses’ Anacostia home became a Washington city home then too.

It’s another lovely day, again the sky is partly cloudy, the air soft and warm and a little breezy, freshly washed by the morning’s rain. The cold weather I had shivered in for much of the first half of my trip is nearly forgotten.

The National Park Service now owns and runs the house, the grounds, and the visitor center and museum, collectively called The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. I take a brief look at the outside of the house, then stop at the visitor center and sign up for the guided tour which will start shortly. I take another brief look around while I wait, and note the displays and artifacts I want to examine more closely when I return to the visitor center museum…. Read the full account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond, Rhythmic Quietude, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau is the American philosopher and writer best known for two books, Walden  and Civil Disobedience. The first is about simplifying your life so as to find what it’s really all about, the second promotes breaking the law in protest when the state does wrong (think Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail). Walden tells of Thoreau’s experiences and observations living a simple life in a cabin for two years, where he seeks to clear his mind of the encumbrances and distractions of life in society and focus on immersion in nature and the life of the mind. Civil Disobedience is an essay prompted by Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery and of America’s starting a war to seize land from the Mexican government.

Here’s a list of resources, short but sweet, to introduce you to his life and work if you haven’t been already or would like a refresher. Not all are complimentary, but that’s good: we learn much from the debate over his ideas, too.

Henry David Thoreau‘, from American Transcendentalism Web

Henry David Thoreau‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Popova, Maria. ‘Happy Birthday, Thoreau: The Beloved Philosopher on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice‘ and ‘The Spirit of Sauntering: Thoreau on the Art of Walking and the Perils of a Sedentary Lifestyle‘ in Brainpickings.org

Schultz, Kathryn. ‘Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.’ The New Yorker, Oct 19th 2015.

The Thoreau Reader: Annotated works of Henry David Thoreau – Three complete books and four essays, annotated copies of Walden and Civil Disobedience, and more…

West, Stephen. Henry David Thoreau. Episode 83 of Philosophize This podcast

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!