During the antebellum period, African-American abolitionists, exiles, preachers, students, tourists, and performers who traveled to the British Isles breathed a sigh of relief and declared that having reached British soil they were truly free. This sense of freedom was made all the more sweet given the relentless exclusion, segregation and even violence African Americans confronted daily on stagecoaches, steamboats and railroads in the United States. To demonstrate the great psychological distance that people of color traveled when they ventured to Europe from 1827 to 1865, this dissertation offers a social history of African Americans and travel, including their refusals to ride in antebellum “Jim Crow” railroad cars, their protests against U.S. passport denials, their expression of abolitionism during the transatlantic voyage, and finally their declarations of freedom, manhood and womanhood once they reached foreign soil. No matter what factors inspired Black people to go abroad, the processes of travel required people of color to assert their freedom in myriad ways and ultimately to define themselves as citizens of the United States.
This project recovers Black voices from multiple U.S. and British newspapers (many of them recently digitized), journals, narratives and letters to illustrate the activism inherent in Black, self-directed travel and to analyze African-American protest strategies against transportation discrimination during the antebellum period. Some of the central figures under study are William Wells Brown, Ellen Craft, Frederick Douglass, Zilpha Elaw (Shum), Elizabeth Greenfield, Harriet Jacobs, Robert Purvis, Charles Remond, Sarah Remond, and Mary Webb.
While transportation discrimination and Black protest against it are the anchors of this dissertation, travel also illuminates classed and gendered understandings of antebellum freedom. African-American women and men strove to be recognized for their earned respectability, qualities characteristic of middle-class domesticity and Victorian masculinity; a woman riding in the Ladies' Cabin or a man holding a passport exemplified a gendered equality. By focusing on the multiple strategies of Black protest, including the assertion of gendered freedom, this dissertation is fundamentally the story of how travel (and the processes of travel) emerged as the frontline of the battle for African-American civil rights before the Civil War.