Paper Trails & Freedom Fighters

Paper Trails
Nesmith Block

 
A photograph of Chauncey Langdon Knapp, a white man with a graying chinstrap beard that runs from his ears down under his chin without covering any part of his mouth or cheeks. Knapp is 39 in this image, and has faint wrinkles around his mouth and eyes
Chauncey Langdon Knapp (1809-1898), pictured here in 1859, was the editor of the anti-slavery Middlesex Standard, which was published from 1844-1845.

Abolitionists craving information about the anti-slavery movement often turned to newspapers. One of their main sources in Lowell was the Middlesex Standard, a newspaper produced in the Nesmith Block on the corner of Merrimack and John Streets. The Middlesex Standard ran from July 25, 1844 to March 13, 1845 under the editorship of John Greenleaf Whittier and Chauncey Langdon Knapp.

This paper circulated during a time when important abolitionists such as Fredrick Douglass came to the city to speak against the institution of slavery. It was also a period when people in towns near Lowell were actively reporting the movements of self-emancipated persons. Whittier and Knapp made it clear that they would not report any individual who escaped slavery. They did print stories about enslaved people who successfully joined family members already in Massachusetts.

In addition to publishing anti-slavery articles, newspaper staff became involved in fundraising for legal fees for abolitionists who were captured in their attempts to free enslaved people. Though the Middlesex Standard ran for less than a year, it was a vital source of information that reached many citizens of Lowell, spreading its message that “Slavery in all its forms is anti-democratic, the natural enemy of the working man.”

 
A black and white drawing of a street scene, slightly yellowed with age. At the end of the street is a church, and on the street are pairs of people walking and horse drawn carts and wagons.
A view of Merrimack Street from 1856.
 

 

Freedom Fighters
Boott Cotton Mills

 
A drawing of a young black man in his mid twenties with short black hair. He is wearing a white collared shirt that is open to the mid chest. The text below the man reads, Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief who prefers death to Slavery.
An image of Joseph Cinqué (c.1814-1879), also known as Sengbe Pieh, from New York City’s The Sun on August 31, 1839. Cinqué led the revolt against the Amistad’s crew and demanded that the crew sail back to Africa.

Yale University

In 1839, 53 enslaved people onboard the Spanish schooner “Amistad” revolted against their captors. They took over the ship while in transit between Cuban ports. The group of enslaved Mende people attempted to force the remaining crew to take them back to Africa, but the crew went north instead and landed in Long Island, New York. The enslaved men were captured and put on trial for mutiny and piracy in federal court in Hartford, Connecticut. Many abolitionists sided with the 53 Africans and raised money for their cause. The Spanish government demanded that President Martin Van Buren turn over the prisoners without a trial, but the case went up to the Supreme Court. In a 7-1 decision the court ruled that the captive Africans were illegally taken from Africa, and were granted their freedom.

While in the United States the former captives toured New England. In Lowell the men spoke at a fundraising meeting, where they received 106 dollars in donations that went towards their passage back to Africa. The men also toured the Boott Cotton Mills, where they were escorted by a mill agent and shown the different mechanized steps in factory work.

After finally raising enough money the men departed to present day Sierra Leone, where they hoped to meet back with their families after years of being apart. Even though their visit to Lowell was very brief, their story of survival and fight for freedom was a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement.

 
This image is of a large rectangular courtyard, with three two story buildings on the left and four five story buildings on the right.
This image of the Boott Cotton Mills in 1850 is almost identical to what the 53 Mende men would have seen when they toured the Boott Cotton Mill on November 18, 1841.

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Last updated: September 24, 2020

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