Interview: Graham Russell Gao Hodges

David Ruggles (1810-1849) was one of the most heroic–and has been one of the most often overlooked–figures of the early abolitionist movement in America. Graham Russell Gao Hodges provides the first biography of this African American activist, writer, and publisher who secured liberty for more than six hundred former bond people, including Frederick Douglass. Hodges’s portrait of Ruggles establishes the abolitionist as an essential link between disparate groups–male and female, black and white, clerical and secular, elite and rank-and-file–recasting the history of antebellum abolitionism as a more integrated and cohesive movement than is often portrayed.

Graham Hodges. Photo by Lucy Cavender.

Hodges is George Dorland Langdon Jr. Professor of History and Africana and Latin American Studies at Colgate University. He talked to UNC Press about why David Ruggles is so important in history.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Q: Who was David Ruggles?

A: David Ruggles (1810-1849) was a black abolitionist, editor, writer, organizer of the New York Committee of Vigilance and famed conductor of the Underground Railroad. Later, he became a doctor of hydrotherapy in a desperate effort to save his own life and that of others. He was renown for his unflinching courage in the battle against slave catchers, kidnappers, and illicit slave traders. He was the first black bookseller and operated the first black lending library in the nation. His magazine, the Mirror of Liberty, was the first periodical published by an African American.

Q: Why has so little been written about him?

A: Ruggles died in 1849, just before the tumultuous events of the 1850s. His death just preceded the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which riveted national attention to the issue of self-emancipated slaves. Histories of fugitive slaves, beginning with William Still’s The Underground Railroad, emphasized the history of fugitive slaves in the 1850s and concentrated on efforts in Philadelphia and western states. Ruggles’ valiant efforts occurred earlier. Histories of the 1830s have foregrounded the activities of William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, the Tappan brothers and have neglected the sizable contributions of black abolitionists.

Q: You call David Ruggles a “radical” black abolitionist. Weren’t all abolitionists “radicals”? What made him and his colleagues different?

A: Abolitionists saw several pathways to ending slavery. Most considered “moral suasion” the best, non-violent means to convince slave masters to give up their chattel, as did many blacks and some radical whites. Ruggles considered slave masters evil and demanded an immediate, non-compensated end to slavery. He did not regard slavery as only a southern issue but saw it as a national problem. Most important, he employed a “practical abolitionism” that advocated civil disobedience, and he argued that fugitive slaves and free blacks beset by kidnappers had a right to defend themselves. This set him apart from nearly all his contemporary abolitionists but anticipated the violent struggles just before the Civil War.

You can read the full interview here.

You can also read Beth’s previous post about the book to learn more about David Ruggles.

Upcoming event: Hodges will be speaking on Tuesday, November 9, at the Gilder Lehrman Center in New Haven, CT.