David Ruggles, Abolitionist and Mentor to Abolitionists

This week is the very good time to talk about Graham Hodges’ new book David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City–for at least two reasons.  The first of these is that Hodges was interviewed by Eric Foner (DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University) as part of the Lincoln Series at the New York Historical Society last night.  The second is that this Saturday marks the 115th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s death.

And a third reason is that most people–and until recently myself included–do not know the connection between Ruggles and Douglass, or why it even matters.

Here’s the short version, necessarily missing many details: Ruggles (1810-1849) was an African American activist, writer, publisher, and hydrotherapist who secured liberty for more than six hundred former bond people, the most famous of whom was Frederick Douglass. Ruggles received Douglass–at the time, Bailey–on the docks of New York City on September 3, 1838.   Here’s the story of the days that followed their meeting, as told by Hodges in the opening pages of his book:

“Deep in distress, Bailey anxiously pondered his future. Luckily, Ruggles searched for the forlorn fugitive and took him home, where Bailey joined several other fugitives from slavery. At Ruggles’s house at 36 Lispenard Street, Bailey had long talks into the night with Ruggles about abolitionism. Ruggles advised Bailey that New York was unsafe. The fugitive from bondage indicated a desire to go to Canada, but Ruggles favored New England, where a fugitive could find work as a caulker or go seafaring.

In addition to advice on work and safety, Ruggles helped Bailey forge a new identity. To celebrate his freedom and to throw off potential slaver catchers. . . Bailey adopted the name of Frederick Johnson.”

In the following weeks, Ruggles helped reunite Johnson (formerly Bailey, and soon to be Douglass) with his fiancee, and held their wedding at his home. He moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and found work as a caulker, just as Ruggles suggested.  And it was in New Bedford that he chose the name Douglass, with Sir Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake” as inspiration.

Hodges writes also of how Douglass remembered Ruggles:

“He had learned that Ruggles was a man of action as well as of words and feeling. During the days that Ruggles sheltered Douglass, Ruggles was beaten and thrown into jail for his part in the Darg case, a highly complex slave rescue. Upon his release, Ruggles quickly resumed antislavery activism. Douglass observed that, “though watched and hemmed in on every side, [Ruggles] seemed to be more than a match for his enemies.” Ruggles was the kind of black man that Douglass wanted to emulate.”

In addition to Douglass, Ruggles mentored Sojourner Truth and William Cooper Nell in the skills of antislavery activism. As a founder of the New York Committee of Vigilance, he advocated a “practical abolitionism” that included civil disobedience and self-defense in order to preserve the rights of self-emancipated enslaved people and to protect free blacks from kidnappers who would sell them into slavery in the South.

In New York, Ruggles moved among the highest ranks of state leaders and spoke up for common black New Yorkers. His work on the Committee of Vigilance inspired many upstate New York and New England whites, who allied with him to form a network that became the Underground Railroad.  That bears repeating:  he helped form the Underground Railroad, and yet for most students of the time, his name is not recognizable.  With this book, Hodges works to change that.

— Beth

P.S.  Late breaking news!  Check out the New York Times article about the New York Historical Society event, and about Ruggles’s life.  It’s here.