Interview with Bryan LaPointe

Interview with Bryan LaPointe

Today we share an interview with Bryan LaPointe, the 2021 winner the 2021 Anthony E. Kaye Memorial Essay Award. His article appearedin the March 2023 JCWE, titled “A Right to Speak: Formerly Enslaved People and the Political Antislavery Movement in Antebellum America.” LaPointe is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University. His research connects runaway enslaved people’s activism and the growth an antislavery politics. He reframes antebellum political history around the experiences and political sensibilities of the enslaved Americans.

What interested you in the topic?

I’ve always been generally interested in the intersection of slavery and nineteenth century American politics. The recent upsurge in studies on abolitionism and antislavery politics in particular has also deeply shaped my understanding of that relationship. Early on in graduate school, I kept coming across passing references to various runaway and formerly enslaved people campaigning for antislavery political parties. Intrigued, I decided to dig deeper to see what these figures were doing and saying as they engaged with political abolitionism. I found that numerous former and fugitive slaves were using their past experiences of slavery to highlight the importance of antislavery politics. More than that, their political activism, I argue in both this article and my larger dissertation project, proved central in growing the antislavery political movement and even in redefining politics itself during the antebellum period.

I appreciate how you discuss both formerly enslaved men and women escapees and their influence in the growth of antislavery politics. As you conducted your research, was there an interesting source, person, and/or development that shaped your conclusions?

One of the most important runaway enslaved political figures was Henry Bibb, who campaigned heavily across the northern states for the Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the 1840s. He figures prominently in the article because of the powerful ways he connected his enslavement, and that of the millions of other American enslaved people, to the need for a political movement to combat slavery. During my research, I came across a small collection of Seymour Treadwell letters at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library. He was one of the white antislavery political activists with whom Bibb often lectured in the mid-1840s. While none of the letters are by Bibb himself, they reveal his intricate scheduling details and the importance white activists placed on Bibb’s political role. He as a fugitive slave was one of the Liberty Party’s “great magnets,” one letter indicated. This source and Bibb’s ardent political activism showed how significant and almost indispensable runaway enslaved people were to the antislavery political cause.

What are the key takeaways that you hope that readers might gain for either their own teaching or future research?

We know a great deal about how formerly and runaway enslaved people served as significant figures in abolitionism generally, because of their ability to testify personally to slavery’s violence. But those who became involved in formal antislavery politics did that and more. They shared their personal stories of slavery’s horrors to underscore the political nature of enslavement, connecting their experiences to northern politics in order to sway white Northerners to vote and support antislavery political coalitions. They made their personal struggles, and those of other enslaved people, potent political rallying cries to bring an intimate and visceral understanding of slavery to antislavery politics. I hope readers come away with an appreciation for how some former and runaway slaves were central political activists. We cannot fully understand the rise of antislavery politics, and thus the transformations of northern politics and the coming of the Civil War, without accounting for formerly enslaved people’s political activism.

After this interesting article, what’s next? Can you provide our readers with a preview of your current research project?

I’m currently finalizing my dissertation, after which I’ll begin the process of turning it into a book manuscript. But my tentative second project involves the political and social histories of runaway enslaved people from the United States who settled in British Canada during the nineteenth century. Many fugitive and formerly enslaved African Americans found refuge in Ontario in this period (including Henry Bibb), especially after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. They built activist communities in Windsor, Buxton, Chatham, and St. Catherines, all while contributing to the international fight against slavery and its influence. Building on previous work by scholars like Robin Winks and Afua Cooper, this project will explore the activist individuals and families of those smaller communities, and how their political impact influenced the larger hemispheric struggle for abolition and equality.

Thank for these responses! We can’t wait to read more of your scholarship!

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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