Sarah Remond (1826-1894)

Sarah Remond
Digital History

Sarah Remond was an African-American abolitionist, an eloquent orator, and inspiring leader – who made her first speech against slavery when she was just sixteen. 

She was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on June 6, 1826 to Nancy and John Remond as one of eight children.  Massachusetts had abolished slavery in conjunction with the American Revolution, and Sarah’s mother thus was born free.  Her father came from the West Indies about 1798, and the family became very prominent in the fight against slavery.  They provided a haven for escaping slaves, as slavery remained legal even in some northern states.   

Sarah grew up in Salem, a town that was exceptionally early to admit black children to elementary school. Her family lived comfortably due to their hair salon and catering business.  Raised with a strong emphasis on education, Sarah was proud when in 1835, she and her sister passed an entrance exam for a new girls’ academy in Salem, but despite meeting the school’s qualifications, they were rejected because of race.  Refusing to give up on secondary education, the Remond family moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Sarah and her siblings attended an all-black private school.

Following her sincere love for education, Sarah read numerous plays, poems, and books and attended concerts and plays outside of school. She continued this independent learning after graduation, when her family moved back to Massachusetts in 1841.  She joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and soon followed her appreciably older brother, Charles Lennox Remond, into lecturing for anti-slavery societies.  

She made her first public speech in 1842, two years after Charles had met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other abolitionist women at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.  It was very uncommon for women to engage in public speaking in this era, and Charles’ exposure to these Quaker women, whose standards were much more egalitarian, probably raised his consciousness of his sister’s abilities.   Because he was male, Charles Remond could participate in this convention; the white women, on the other hand, were banned, even though they were the elected representatives of female anti-slavery societies in the United States.

Sarah Remond spent the next decade organizing opposition to slavery, in an era when such a huge economic change remained controversial, even in the North. Integrated audiences also were controversial – even in Quaker meeting houses – and Remond showed real courage when, at age 27, she tried to sit in the “white” section for an opera at Boston’s Howard Athenaeum.  When an angry policeman shoved her down the stairs, she boldly sued the city for injuries caused by the police, and a jury of white men awarded her five hundred dollars.  The 1853 case drew national attention and greatly encouraged white abolitionists – some of whom were beaten to death by pro-slavery mobs.

The American Anti-Slavery Society hired Remond in 1856 to travel nationally, and her speeches met with less hostility as she went further west.  Traveling without a male escort also defied the era’s moral codes, and in doing so, she helped break another barrier for women.  Increasingly aware of the barriers of being female, as well as black, she joined Susan B. Anthony and others at the annual convention of the Women’s Rights Society in 1858.

She would not be there the next year, though, as in 1859, she made the biggest move of her life, when she went to England at the request of the American Anti-Slavery Society.  Remond was the first black person that many Britons had ever seen, and she took her responsibility as a representative of her people very seriously.  Always described as refined in behavior and dress, she nonetheless stood up for her beliefs.  She drew more publicity later that year, when the American Embassy in London denied her a passport to France.  Again, she fought and prevailed and, in the process, attracted an increasing number of admirers to her cause.

The Civil War began early in 1861, virtually forcing Remond to remain abroad, but she rendered a genuine service to the Union by continuing to speak there.  Because Southern cotton was vital to British textile mills, businessmen there wanted to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy.  Many Southerners believed that these powerful interests would persuade British gunboats to crash the Union’s blockades of ports such as New Orleans, and thus force the North to allow the Southern states to secede.  Sarah Remond spent the war reminding Britons that ending human bondage was more important than a temporary economic setback.

She also enrolled in the Bedford College for Ladies, the female unit of the University of London, where she studied languages such as French and Latin, as well as music.  Remond returned to the U.S. in 1867 and participated in an attempt to remove references to white males in New York’s state constitution, which would have expanded rights to blacks and women.  When that failed, she moved permanently to Europe.

Living out the rest of her life in Italy, she probably studied medicine in Florence.  Some sources say that she built a successful medical practice in Rome, and two of her sisters joined her there in 1885.  She married for the first time at age 50, and famed Frederick Douglass visited her in Rome in 1887.  Sarah Parker Remond died in 1894 and was buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.

 

Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History

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