Giving Voice to the Abolitionists

An Anonymous Donor Helps to Resurrect History

April 30, 2021

In December of 2020, just seven months after the murder of George Floyd, an extraordinary video was released by the Associates of the Boston Public Library called Giving Voice to theAbolitionists. It draws on letters from the BPL’s vast Anti-Slavery Collection and features five talented students from Boston Arts Academy reading the letters.

The video had been planned for a while, but it was released during a time when our country is grappling with the racism and violence that has its roots in what historian Ibram X. Kendi has called “the European societies that largely populated our nation.” In his book Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi writes, “Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era.”

William Lloyd Garrison and Luigi Bianchi
The letters of William Lloyd Garrison were read for the video by Boston Arts Academy student Luigi Bianchi

The young actors give voice to those Black and White leaders who refused to justify the racist policies of their era. Originally penned by William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Lydia Maria Child, and Amos Augustus Phelps, the manuscripts are brought vividly to life in a series of moving performances.

The young man who reads Garrison’s letter is just eight years younger than Garrison was when he wrote it. A young woman reads the words of Frederick Douglass.

The video was produced in collaboration with Artists for Humanity, another youthfocused arts nonprofit, and is part of the Associates’ Pierce Performance Series, which seeks to increase public awareness of the BPL’s Special Collections through free performances and lectures.

Cover of Giving Voices Click here to view the video

Wellesley College Professor Kellie Carter Jackson introduces the readings in the beginning of the video and argues for the letters’ critical relevance today. As Prof. Jackson notes, the abolitionists were “patriots and prophets.” She explains, “As patriots, they loved this country enough to call out its oppression and unjust ways. As prophets they predicted a better, freer future. The end of slavery was about human rights. And for Black abolitionists, it was a two-fold mission that required immediate emancipation and unmitigated equality. In the letters, we have the chance to hear the words of passionate people. Men and women who risked their lives and their livelihood in their commitments that all men and women might be free.”

The preservation of the BPL’s Anti- Slavery collection, as well as its digitization, was made possible by the generosity of an anonymous Boston Foundation donor who has granted more than $2 million over the last decade to the Associates of the BPL. These funds have supported the preservation, protection, and promotion of some of the truly outstanding items (which number in the millions) in the Library’s Special Collections, including approximately 40,000 abolitionist manuscripts. The donor had read an article in the Boston Globe that brought the plight of the Special Collections to light. It quoted David McCullough, a former BPL trustee, who told the Globe that the national treasures in the Collections were “being allowed to deteriorate at an unconscionably fast rate.”

Abolitionists student collage
Each letter's author was represented by a Boston Arts Academy student. From left: Sojourner Truth, read by Ashley Alexandre; Frederick Douglass, read by Gracey Desravines; Amos Augustus Phelps, read by Anya Edwards; and Lydia Maria Child, read by Keishona Weekes. 

Having established a Donor Advised Fund at the Boston Foundation, the donor asked the Foundation’s staff to find strong organizations to support. “The Boston Foundation has the experience to know the right questions to ask, plus it has its finger on the pulse of the city and knows the stability of its various institutions,” said the donor.

The Foundation identified the Associates of the Boston Public Library, an independent nonprofit dedicated to conserving the BPL’s collections of rare books, manuscripts and other items of historic and cultural interest, as the perfect steward for the funding. The donor chose to be anonymous to avoid personal attention, and in the hope of inspiring others to step up and support the incredible resources in the BPL’s Special Collections.

“The Boston Foundation and this donor are the prime movers when it comes to protecting and preserving these invaluable historic abolitionist documents,” says Wendy Ballinger, Director of Development for the Associates of the Boston Public Library. “When you have a donation like this, with no strings attached, it is very powerful. It’s really nothing less than a pure gift of making truth and history accessible to the public.”