Reform Movements

Elizabeth Buffum Chace
Elizabeth B. Chace
The Blackstone Valley has long been a place for progressive thought and action. Dating back to the 1600s, the Valley was home to religious dissidents. The Quakers, or the Society of Friends, were some of the earliest settlers in the Valley. Their beliefs in anti-slavery and gender equality became a foundation upon which later movements were built. From the ranks of the Quakers came important reformers such as Abby Kelley Foster (1811 – 1887). A human rights activist, Foster’s radical call for social reform included the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and equality for all.

Elizabeth Buffum Chace (1806 – 1899) was another Quaker by birth. She married noted industrialist Samuel Chace and used her socio-economic position to become one of the most vocal abolitionists of her time. Her house in Valley Falls, Rhode Island served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Chace also built a kindergarten for mill workers’ children and eventually joined the ranks of suffragists.

 
Multi-story building with carriages and horses in front
Brinley Hall, home of the first National Women's Rights Convention in 1850
The work of women like Foster and Chace made the Blackstone Valley a noted hotspot for change. In 1850, the first National Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts. This two-day event invited women from across the nation to join in the discussion of women’s rights. A year later, a second National Women’s Rights Convention was also held in Worcester.

While questioning their place in a rapidly changing industrial society, some people went beyond meetings and conventions to form their own communities. The minister Adin Ballou worked with like-minded people to create a fraternal community in Milford, Massachusetts starting in 1842. Ballou and his followers, called “Practical Christians,” called this community Hopedale. This commune was one of the most successful social experiments of its time. Although it eventually became a company town, some of the ideals of the early society lived on. The community’s dedication to abolitionism, temperance, women’s rights, and gender equality set Hopedale apart.

 
Young child labor in front of machinery in mill
Young child laborer in front of spinning machine
Elsewhere in the Blackstone Valley, as the process of industrialization continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workers took part in various labor reform movements. From the beginning, workers resisted conditions that did not suit them. Families working for Samuel Slater’s mill in Pawtucket withheld their children from work in the mill when they did not agree with his conditions. By 1824, a growing tension between management and employees led to the first textile strike in United States history. This strike was also the first to be led by women. Workers were slow to form labor unions in the Valley, but there is a long history of workers struggling for their political and workplace rights. The Dorr Rebellion, numerous walkouts, and eventually formalized strikes are important parts of the labor movement.

People of the Blackstone Valley advocated for the rights of enslaved people in the American South, women’s right to vote, and better conditions for workers. By experimenting in utopian societies and pushing for working-class rights, many people have made the Blackstone Valley a place with a rich history of social and political reform.
 

Last updated: July 17, 2021

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