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A voice for freedom: The life of Sarah Parker Remond

Leading Woman Sarah Parker Remond started speaking publically about slavery in the USA at just 16 years old. Her lectures took her around America, the UK and Europe, where she became a well-known figure and agent of change in the anti-slavery movement.

Sarah Parker Remond
Sarah Parker Remond 1826-1894

“I appeal on behalf of four million men, women and children who are chattels in the Southern States of America,” declared abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond, to an audience in Liverpool in 1859, two years before the outbreak of the American Civil War.  “…not because they are identical with my race and colour, though I am proud of that identity, but because they are men and women.”

Sarah Parker Remond was an African American slavery abolitionist, lecturer and physician. Her anti-slavery campaign, which she began at just 16 years old, took her across America and on to Britain and Europe where she tirelessly condemned the atrocities happening in her country.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1815, Remond was one of eight children. Massachusetts was by this time a ‘free state’ and centre of the abolition movement. The Remond family owned a successful catering and hairdressing business and Nancy, Remond's mother, was a major influence on her life.

“While our mother never excused those who unjustly persecuted those whose only crime was a dark complexion, her discipline taught us to gather strength from our own souls; and we felt the full force of the fact, that to be black was no crime," wrote Remond in a letter to a friend. 

Education and prejudice

Remond was largely self-educated and took advantage of a house full of books and newspapers, many from the Anti-Slavery Society which members of her family were active in. The Remond home was a meeting point for black and white abolitionists. Her brother, Charles Lenox Remond, had begun speaking publically and was the American Anti-Slavery Society's first black lecturer.

Salem, despite being a centre of anti-slavery activity, was not free of hostility. In theory, black people in the non-slave owning northern states were free and equal citizens, however, in actuality, they were subject to regular prejudice, abuse and racism. One of the ways this affected Remond was through access to education.

In 1835, after passing an entrance examination, Remond and her sister were admitted to Salem High School. Within a week, after protests from parents, the segregationist school committee decided to remove all black children and establish a separate school for them. This injustice affected Remond greatly. “Years have elapsed since this occurred, but the memory of it is as fresh as ever in my mind…engraved on my heart.” As a result of this enforced segregation, the family moved to Rhode Island where the children were again refused admittance to public schools. After some time, Remond received some education at a private school that had been established by a group of black residents of the town. Remond’s father campaigned to desegregate schools in Salem and won in 1841.

Influenced by the atrocities she had witnessed and persuaded by her friends, Remond started speaking publically in the community and around the North-East United States. On these tours she also faced prejudice and had to stay in private homes, being refused hotel rooms.

Fear not the wind nor the waves

Following extensive tours of America as an engaging and persuasive speaker, Remond was asked to bring her anti-slavery message to the UK, to gather support for the abolitionist cause. She took the steamer ferry Arahia from Boston to Liverpool on December 28, 1858, a fifteen day journey not for the faint hearted. Before embarking, Remond told her friend Abby Kelly Foster, that she feared not "the wind nor the waves, but I know that no matter how I go, the spirit of prejudice will meet me." The ship, covered in ice and snow after a treacherous journey, arrived in Liverpool on January 12, 1858.

Remond was surprised by her reception in the UK, telling a friend, “I have been received here as a sister by white women for the first time in my life. I have been removed from the degradation which overhangs all persons of my complexion... I have received a sympathy I never was offered before." 

At her overflowing UK lectures, Remond told audiences of thousands of the horrors of slavery and of the discrimination and indignities suffered by ‘free black’ people in America, shocking listeners and raising a large amount of money for the anti-slavery cause. She also spoke of corrupt American politics and the corrupt church. Her tour was followed closely by the British and American press, spreading her message even further. Remond's time in the UK was especially important as she was thought to be the first woman to discuss slavery in front of mass audiences.

Remond also spoke fearlessly of the sexual exploitation of enslaved black women, a topic generally deemed too taboo to discuss in public at the time, even in newspapers. “They are exposed for sale and subjected to the most shameful indignities. The more Anglo-­ Saxon blood that mingles with the blood of the slave, the more gold is poured out when the auctioneer has a woman for sale because they are sold to be concubines for white Americans.”

The American Civil War

During the American Civil War, British workers were vehemently pro-Union, but the bourgeoisie, many of whom attended Remond’s lectures, wanted to retain their profitable trading relationship with the South. Remond knew that forcing the British public to confront the atrocities happening across the Atlantic would be hugely advantageous for the cause. She urged Britons to buy cotton from India as opposed to slave-harvested cotton from America’s southern states and worked to build British support for the Union blockade of the Confederacy.

The Union succeeded and the War ended 1865 with the surrender of the South. Four million slaves were freed. After the War and the emancipation of slaves, Remond turned her attention to the ‘freedmen’, ex-slaves in need of support and funds, and continued her speaking engagements with this message.

It was in 1859 that Remond enrolled at Bedford College for Ladies, where she is thought to have been the first black student. She studied History, French, Latin, Music, English Literature and Elocution in her two years there, continuing her lecture tours whilst on school breaks. At this time, Remond became friends with Elizabeth Jesser Reid, a women’s education pioneer, philanthropist, and founder of Bedford College. During her time at the college, she also became a founding member of the Ladies’ London Emancipation Society.

Sarah Parker Remond Plaque
Memorial plaque for Sarah Parker Remond in Rome, Italy. Photo credit: Marilyn Richardson

Later life in Italy

Remond moved to Florence, Italy in 1866. Here she began to study medicine at one of Europe’s most prestigious medical schools, Santa Maria Nuovo, at the age of 42. She flourished in Florentine high society, married a Sardinian painter named Lazzaro Pinto Cabras and went on to practise medicine for more than twenty years.

Remond died in Florence in 1894 at the age of 79 and was buried in Rome, where, in 2014, a memorial plaque was put up in her memory. Less is known about her later life but her legacy is one of passion, bravery and determination. Remond challenged the perception of women as submissive victims of slavery and segregation, not fit for public platform, and her significant contribution to progress and emancipation paved the way for radical change.

Lucy Jordan, University of London Content Producer

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