The Anti-Slavery Alphabet: Teaching Slavery's Evils in 1846
We have a song for our ABCs. Everyone knows the happy and joyful tune. What if you learned your ABCs, and at the same time, you were learning why it was horrible to enslave people who had dark skin? What if you learned your ABCs, and at the same time, you were being taught how the government profits off of physically and emotionally hurting people who were slaves? Well, The Anti-Slavery Alphabet did just that.
The Anti-Slavery Alphabet is a book that was published in 1846 and was sold at the Anti-Slavery Fair in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The fair was organized by the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and raised money for abolitionism by charging a small admission fee and selling various antislavery publications.
The alphabet book was published anonymously, but later it was revealed that the authors were Quaker sisters Hannah and Mary Townsend. Their Quaker background is more than likely what allowed them to have some comfort in their activist roles since morally educating the youth was considered socially acceptable for women writers.
When I say Quakers, I’m not talking about Quaker Oats. If you don’t know who Quakers were, they were The Religious Society of Friends. It was the first corporate body in Britain and North America to fully condemn slavery as both ethically and religiously wrong. Quaker records show early writings of anti-slavery sentiment, dating from the 1600s. After the 1750s, Quakers were consistently and actively trying to change public opinion about the slave trade and slavery in general.
So now, lets get back to the alphabet.
Most antislavery and abolitionist books and texts were not read in the classroom, but were rather read in antislavery and abolitionist homes. It was an attempt to inform children about the evils of slavery, the immorality behind it, abolitionist politics, and to inspire future activism. This alphabet book was no different. There aren’t any illustrations in the book except for each letter, which was hand-colored and decorated with simple designs. The reason for this? To direct the reader’s focus toward its antislavery and activist message, rather than the artwork.
The readers are asked to acknowledge the system of slavery and take action to further the abolitionist cause. Its introduction, which is titled “To Our Little Readers,” urges children to take part in the abolitionist movement by imploring slave masters, educating peers, and boycotting “candy, sweetmeat, pie or cake,” because all of these contained sugar, a slave-cultivated staple.
It introduces troubling concepts associated with slavery, such as cotton-field labor (“C is the Cotton-field, to which / This injured brother’s driven”), corporal punishment (“D is the Driver, cold and stern / Who follows, whip in hand”), and kidnapping (“K is the Kidnapper, who stole / That little child and mother”).
When they get to the letter “Y”, the reader is told “Bravely to war” against slavery, and the last four lines introduce the young audience to a role model, “the Zealous man, sincere, / Faithful, and just, and true.”
Even though the book highlights the horrors of slavery, it also offers hope, depicting a society where slaves are free and enjoying life. Abolitionists did not stop talking about the horrors of slavery, even though it would take another 20 years for slavery to “end” (even though slavery truly did not end, it only evolved and continues to evolve) after a bloody, four-year civil war, a long struggle through a Reconstruction plagued with injustice, racism, and terror, and a brutal Jim Crow era until the civil rights movement would begin to fight, nationwide and international, against racism and inequality that continued to run rampant in America.
Knowing The Anti-Slavery Alphabet existed does show us that a generation of morally in-tune activists were being grown, the same way people like myself have grown to fight against racism, inequality, and social injustices today.
Images from: Mississippi Department of Archives and History