Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights

Abolition and the Mail

Reformers began working for the abolition of slavery in the earliest days of the American republic. By 1804 they had succeeded in the northern states and turned all their efforts to attacking slavery in the south and opposing its spread in the west. Postage rates decreased from the 1830s through the 1850s, allowing abolitionists to distribute literature cheaply via the post office. Many southerners regarded these mail campaigns as an attack, aided and abetted by the federal government.

The New Method of Sorting the Mail, As Practiced by Southern Slave-Holders, 1835

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The Charleston, South Carolina post office was raided by a pro-slavery mob in July 1835. “U.S.M.” on the mail bag at lower left stands for U.S. Mail, and the mob is burning bundles of abolitionist newspapers—with the help of the city postmaster.

 

“Great Meeting in Fanueil Hall” circular, February 5, 1842

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Boston abolitionists met in 1842 and called on Congress to end slavery in Washington, D.C. This report of the meeting was mailed free to a member of Congress with an affixed seal that reads: “Are you a FREEMAN…Do as you would be done by. Proclaim liberty to the captives.” Slavery remained legal in the District until 1862.

 
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Loan from John M. Hotchner


5¢ Franklin on Free Soil Party circular, September 1848

The Free Soil Party was a third party in the presidential election of 1848, when Martin Van Buren was their candidate. Their sole platform was preventing the spread of slavery into the new territories acquired during the Mexican-American War. The first U.S. postage stamp, issued in 1847, was used to send their political circular through the mail.

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Early London Edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852

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Loan from Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Illustrated Anti-slavery Cover, March 28, 1853

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Less than a year after its publication in the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more than one million copies in Great Britain. Although modern critics point out the book’s use of racially stereotyped characters, in its day it was regarded as a powerful piece of anti-slavery propaganda. Scenes from the novel decorate the reverse of this British anti-slavery cover published by James Valentine of Dundee, Scotland.

Back of cover: The scenes, clockwise from top flap: Uncle Tom is sold away from Aunt Chloe and his children because of his owner’s bankruptcy. The overseers Sambo and Quimbo flog Uncle Tom. Simon Legree whips Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom reads his Bible atop cotton bales on a Mississippi River steamboat. Pursued by slave catchers, Eliza escapes north with her five year old son Harry. Emmeline is sold away from her grieving mother, Susan.


Cover from USS Portsmouth off Cape Verde, January 7, 1849

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The U.S. and Great Britain prohibited the importation of slaves in 1807. Both nations established Africa Squadrons—naval detachments to intercept slave trading ships off the West African coast. Slaves found on the captured vessels were freed, usually in Liberia. Mail to and from ships of the Africa Squadron is quite scarce.

Loan from Patrick Maselis

 

Cover to USS Mohican off Angola, December 20, 1860

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Mohican’s only capture was the slave ship Erie, carrying almost 900 Africans. The thirty-three cents postage on this letter paid five cents domestic U.S. postage, the sixteen cents transatlantic ship rate, and twelve cents (equal to six pence) British Empire postage.

Loan from Patrick Maselis