Some time during the first four decades of the nineteenth century, a piece of West African cloth and a gold ring were sent by ship from an African father to abolitionist schoolmaster William B. Dodge of Salem, Massachusetts.
According to Dodge's descendant, Virginia Gray, the gifts were sent "by an African Chieftain in grateful recognition for sending his kidnaped son who was sold into American slavery back home." We do not know the name of the gift's giver, nor of his son. They trusted that these items would reach Dodge, as Dodge had trusted that the father and son would be reunited.
The cloth in its brown paper wrapper was passed down from generation to generation in Dodge's family. We do not know who wrote the story of the cloth on the wrapper. As a schoolteacher, Dodge often was addressed as "Master."
William B. Dodge (1783-1869) was a schoolteacher in Salem, Massachusetts, for forty years and in 1834 became Master of Salem's Colored School. Dodge was the first Vice-President and second President of the Anti-Slavery Society of Salem and Vicinity, which became the Salem Abolition Society.
In 1844, he and family members moved to Millburn, Lake County, Illinois. While the first pastor of the Congregational Church there, Father Dodge was also founding president of both the Anti-Slavery Society of Antioch, Illinois, and the Lake County Liberty Association.
Father Dodge published a letter entitled "The Capacity of the Colored Person to Receive Education" in the Illinois Waukegan Gazette, January 13, 1866, that said in part:
"A most cruel prejudice meets them [African Americans] at all the entries of honorable employment. . . . I speak advisedly on this point, having made several applications for colored born to those who professed great friendship for the colored race; the reply invariably was if I take a colored boy my present apprentices will not work with him, and it will ruin my business."
The African gifts the colorful cloth, gold ring, and their accompanying notes were carefully kept by five generations of William Dodge's family, including Newton resident Virginia Gray and her father, Newton Alderman Burton Payne Gray. Although William Dodge's work as an abolitionist is documented in several sources, we know about these gifts from Africa only because the family preserved them and donated them to the Newton History Museum in 1991.
What I find so compelling about the textile and the ring sent from Africa to Dodge is that the gift of a son returned was not left unanswered. This African man chose gifts that were both valuable and portable. He found a way to send them to the man who helped return his son. Freedom was never a one-sided gift.
Sheila Sibley, Curator
Slavery existed in Africa before the arrival of Europeans. But slaves in Africa, usually captured in war, were not enslaved for life, and slavery was never hereditary. In some African kingdoms, slaves could marry and own property, including slaves.
By the 16th Century, the perceived need for cheap agricultural labor in the Americas led to ever-increasing European involvement in the enslavement of Africans. African tribes engaged in warfare and raids against each other to obtain slaves. African traders marched these kidnapped people to the West coast of Africa where Europeans waited at trading posts to barter for them and in turn sell them for a profit in the Americas.
From the early 1440s, when the Portuguese first traded in human cargo from Africa, until 1888, when slavery ended in Brazil, more than 20 million people were kidnapped in Africa. Between 10 and 15 million of these people survived the forced march to sailing ships and the journey across the Atlantic to enslavement in the Americas. Roughly seven percent, or between 700,000 and 1,050,000, were enslaved in British North America. Learn more.
Ottobah Cugoano was born in Agimaque on the Fantyn coast (Ghana) about 1757. Kidnapped at about the age of 13, he was put aboard a slaveship. Years later he wrote, "And when we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life, and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames. . . ."
Thousands of enslaved Africans tried to overthrow their captors aboard these ships. Between 300 and 400 slave ship revolts have been documented, but few were successful. Ottobah Cugoano survived the trip across the Atlantic and was enslaved in Grenada. In 1772, he was taken to England where he eventually obtained his freedom and was baptised as "John Stuart." He wrote Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, which was published in 1787.
There is so much that we do not know about the African father and son that William B. Dodge helped reunite. We do not know what they looked like or what their names were. We cannot know how they felt when the son was kidnapped and sold into slavery. We can only imagine the joy they felt when the son returned to his father. An ex-slave named Spotswood Rice wrote of his feelings to his still-enslaved daughters, Corra and Mary, in 1864, while he was a private in the Union Army:
"My Children I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever ... be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life ... god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood. ... Oh! My Dear children how I do want to see you
Quoted in Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in The Civil War Era, 1997
Many former slaves were never reunited with their families. Travel was difficult and often family members could not be located. But they did not forget each other and yearned to be together again.
Several quotes in this exhibit come from narratives written in the eighteenth century by, or for, formerly enslaved people. Most enslaved Africans were not literate. Their cultures valued the spoken word. But some did learn to read and wrote their autobiographies. Others told their life stories to someone else, who did not record the words exactly as spoken by the narrator. When reading these narratives, we should ask ourselves about how the recorder may have changed words and ideas. We also should consider why the narratives were published. Many were supported by antislavery organizations, which wanted to shape readers' opinions about slavery.