Alan Singer, New York’s Grand Emancipation Jubilee, by Mary Liz Stewart
New York’s Grand Emancipation Jubilee: Essays on Slavery, Resistance, Abolition, Teaching, and Historical Memory – Alan J, Singer, PhD, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2018
“Battles over how we understand the past help define who we are in the present and the possibilities for our future” (162).
This foundational principle ties together the essay topic choices and their content in Alan Singer’s newest book New York’s Grand Emancipation Jubilee published in May 2018 by SUNY Press. This sequel to New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth, published by SUNY Press in 2008, is an engaging, hard to put down collection of essays that had a previous life as panel and workshop presentations and as articles prepared for academic journals. Revised and collected together in one volume, they offer an eye-opening, critical examination of slavery, resistance, abolition, emancipation, race and public memory from a New York City and State perspective that is applicable to the entire nation. While re-examining the past, Singer seamlessly weaves throughout his discourse the challenge of what do we do with this new knowledge, how do we use it to better understand who we are today, both as individuals and as communities, and as a nation, and how will we use this knowledge to move forward into the future to be a more just society.
Alan Singer received his Masters and Doctoral degrees from Rutgers University and is currently Professor of Secondary Education in the School of Education at Hofstra University. Beginning his educational career in a high school social studies classroom, Alan lets his ‘on the ground’ classroom experiences inform his writing of his valuable and provocative reflections on race, slavery, and American history.
Alan’s review of relevant literature coupled with his own research offers the reader a substantially documented examination of his thesis. Berlin, McManus, Aptheker, Foner, Still, Greeley, and many other greats referenced by Singer provide the reader with a rich selection of over 300 sources for further investigation. An incredibly detailed index complements the resource section and makes this text remarkably searchable. Inclusion of Teaching Notes in each chapter offers models of pertinent, thought provoking questions and related primary document text for both classroom and public conversation use.
However, Grand Emancipation Jubilee does leave room for some additional interpretations not offered in the text. For instance, in Chapter 4, ‘Narratives of Slavery and Escape: The Importance of Solomon Northup’, offers a summary of Northup’s narrative which helps the reader have an understanding of the content of Northup’s story. However, the significance of Northup’s narrative as compared to narratives written by others who were enslaved fails to offer for consideration the purpose of the publication of many other narratives of the antebellum period which was to raise money for the author and persuade readers to join the cause of abolition. Not wanting to discount the impact of Northup’s narrative, it must be admitted that other narratives that drew on the heart strings of the reader to generate an emotional response to the brutal treatment imposed upon people who were enslaved was an effective tool to sell books and motivate people to support, if not actively engage in, efforts to abolish the institution of slavery. As well, Northup came to the condition of enslavement as a kidnapped free man who had a family and business experiences that informed how he interacted with and recorded in his narrative the conditions under which he was enslaved.
Chapters 3 and 9, ‘Abolition in the Margins’ and ‘Abolition: From Marginalization to Emancipation’ respectively, fail to consider the civil rights work of Black abolitionists, also referenced as rights of full citizenship, as having an influence on the capacity of Black abolitionists to hammer away at anti-slavery work. As research into documents recounting the life and work of Black abolitionist Stephen Myers, it is clear that the racist perspective of even white abolitionists distracted the energies of the Black abolitionists from devoting all their efforts to anti-slavery work. Black abolitionists were not only fighting the institution of slavery, they were also fighting the discriminatory practices directed at them. For example, while Stephen Myers was engaged in his Underground Railroad activism, he was also engaged in planning and sometimes speaking at Colored Men’s Conventions. He also organized the Florence Farming and Lumber Association which was an economic development plan whereby African Americans could purchase small plots of land in the town of Florence and collaboratively farm the land and cut the lumber for personal use and for sale, he filed a lawsuit against the Albany City Public School District to desegregate the schools, he was an active member of the New York State Suffrage Association and of the American League of Colored Laborers. While engaged in these civil rights efforts he wrote for abolition newspapers and was employed at various jobs that provided financial support to his family. While these considerations, if included in chapters 3 and 9, would certainly enhance the understanding of why Black abolitionists were not as effective and speedy in achieving their goals as might have been desired, Singer is quite clear in explaining that factors external to the work of the abolitionists held significant sway in the rolling out of this history. Taken as a whole, though, one must credit Alan Singer with doing an incredible job throughout the eleven chapters helping the reader understand the numerous fractious forces that affected the impact of the abolitionists’ work.
Chapter 2, ‘Resistance! Resistance! Resistance! New York’s Black Abolitionists and the Coming of the Civil War’ is a breath of fresh air in reference to the standard Underground Railroad canon. The highlight of this chapter is the emphasis on Black activism, which so often gets overwhelmed by the historians’ focus on the ideological debates of white abolitionists. The voices of Black abolitionists repeatedly call not only for the abolition of the institution of slavery, but also call for the rights of full citizenship. According to Singer, “…it was black activism, much of which was centered in New York State, that moved the challenge to slavery from the margins to the center of political debate” (30). Recoverable documents detailing the ideology of and activities engaged in by Black abolitionists have been making their way into public discourse and changing the Underground Railroad narrative. The lack of a homogenous response on the part of Black abolitionists gives evidence of free thinking individuals who ran the gamut from supporting an aggressive, “immediatist” response to the institution of slavery to a more conservative focus on the provision of assistance to freedom seekers. As the Black abolitionists had more to risk than their white counterparts, due to laws of the day and the imposition of discriminatory practices and the racist sentiments of many New Yorkers, the work of Black abolitionists becomes even more inspiring. It was Black abolitionists such as Stephen Myers and Peter Williams working in concert with others who forced the demise of the colonization movement. It was Black abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnet and David Walker who advocated for the enslaved to take up arms against enslavers. It was Black abolitionists such as Louis Napolean and David Ruggles who openly opposed the 1793 and 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Law. However, in the midst of the recovery of this important information, there is a desperate need to uncover the work of Black women in the abolitionist movement, especially women who were New York State residents, as their stories are few and light of content.
Kudos to Alan Singer for capturing these great essays in one volume and making them a community resource. New York’s Grand Emancipation Jubilee is a must read for formal and informal educators, high school and college students, and the adult general public. While it is not the final word on slavery, resistance, abolition, emancipation, race and public memory, as research on many fronts continues to add to the understanding of this significant episode in American history, it is, without a doubt, a major contribution to understanding where we, as a nation, have come from so that we may better understand where we are today and where we can go tomorrow.