13 July 2013

The Anti-Slavery Alphabet: A Remarkable 1846 Primer for Children

In 1846 a pair of Quaker sisters came up with an idea.  They were abolitionists and actively campaigned against domestic slavery in the United States.  However, Hannah and Mary Townsend came to realise that in order to ensure the end of the oppressive servitude of so many of their countrymen and women that educating the young was vital. A child, they decided was not only able to fight against slavery in their adult years but as youngsters too.  They produced a new way for the 26 letters to be taught by rote – the Anti-Slavery Alphabet.

You might call it a form of liberal indoctrination but in 1846 the stakes were so very high.  It would take a war for the Emancipation Proclamation to become a reality in 1863. Thanks to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History we still have a record of the alphabet. The pamphlet starts with an address to the youth of the nation, pleading with them to confront adults, to beseech them that they neither buy new slaves and that those they own should be liberated at once.

The Alphabet, each letter hand-colored, is made up of sixteen leaves, printed on one side, with the pages facing each other.  It is a remarkable document, unique in its nature.  By addressing children directly it seeks (with an earnestness that is absent from so much of the politics of today) to aid in the abolition of slavery through the education of a new generation.

From A for Abolitionist each letter goes on to describe a specific feature of slavery, from those who perpetuated the practice to those who were victims of it.  The sisters do not direct their ire at just the Southern States, however: they also implicate the North in its dependence of slave labor to create cheap products.  This slight pamphlet helped to raise awareness of the impact of slavery on countless men, women and their families, as well as the overarching immorality of its perpetuation.  In a country where almost four million people were slaves the Townsend sisters managed to make it about the individual.