By Andy O’Brien 

On September 24, 1832, the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison arrived in Portland on a speaking tour to preach about the evils of slavery. Garrison had previously founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society and its Boston-based newspaper, The Liberator, to build a popular movement to end the enslavement of African Americans once and for all. In 1832, there were no abolitionist organizations in Maine, but Garrison was determined to change that. 

     Garrison and his supporters believed that slavery was un-Christian and a moral abomination that needed to be immediately abolished. However, they opposed violence and even political action to meet their objective. Instead, they sought to end enslavement by persuading Americans that it was morally wrong and by teaching slaveholders the error of their ways. Garrison used his lectures as an organizing tool. He urged his audiences to join the society, subscribe to The Liberator, and start Anti-Slavery Society affiliate organizations of their own. 

     The abolitionist’s incendiary speeches were extraordinarily controversial. Anti-abolitionists accused him of being a “fanatic” whose rhetoric would divide the nation further and potentially cause a civil war. One year earlier, an enslaved preacher named Nat Turner had led a four-day rebellion of more than 70 enslaved Black workers in Southampton County, Virginia, to free their brethren in bondage. Roughly 60 white residents and over 100 enslaved workers died in the fighting before the revolt was put down and the leaders were executed. Garrison’s opponents feared abolitionists would provoke more slave revolts. 

     When Garrison arrived in Portland, he was deeply concerned about the American Colonization Society (ACS) – at the time still called the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color. He had been building support in Maine for the organization’s scheme to send willing African Americans to live in its newly founded African colony of Liberia. However, many Black and white abolitionists despised the idea that African Americans should be sent to Africa after having helped to build the foundation of the American economy with their forced labor, and after having fought alongside white colonists against the British in the American Revolution. 

     The day he arrived in Portland, Garrison blasted the ACS in a furious lyrical screed: 

The veil has been torn from the brow of the monster, and his gorgon features are seen without disguise. He must die! Already he bleeds – he roars – he shakes the earth – his resistance is mighty – but he is doomed to die! The friends of justice and of bleeding humanity are surrounding him, and soon their spears shall reach his vitals. Heaven and earth shall rejoice at his overthrow. 

     During his stay in Portland, Garrison set up his headquarters at the home of Quaker businessman Nathan Winslow and his wife Comfort, who were known as passionate anti-slavery organizers. The following Thursday, Garrison met up with Black activist  and businessman Reuben Ruby – “a colored gentleman held in much esteem in this city,” Garrison observed – who took him on a tour of the city in his coach. Ruby also invited Garrison for a night of “handsome entertainment” at his home on Preble Street that Saturday. It was there that Garrison met “twenty colored gentlemen of good intelligence and reputable character.” 

     He later wrote, “As a mark of their respect for my person and gratitude for my labors, I shall long cherish it in my memory; and I beg them to accept this public acknowledgement of their kindness as some evidence of appreciation.” On Sunday afternoon, Garrison addressed a large crowd of Black residents in the basement of the Abyssinian Meeting House, as the second-floor nave had not yet been finished in 1832. “I am persuaded they will treasure up my advice in their hearts, and carry into effect some of the measures proposed for their benefit,” he wrote. “One of these was the immediate formation of a temperance society, in imitation of their brethren and sisters in other places.” Unfortunately, there are no surviving accounts of the Black community members who took part in the abolitionist movement in Maine at this time, so we have to rely exclusively on Garrison’s observations.  

     Garrison traveled by stagecoach to give lectures in Hallowell, Bangor, Waterville College (now Colby), and Augusta, where he debated Rev. Cyril Pearl, an ACS agent who had traveled to Maine to counteract the influence of abolitionism. Meanwhile, Reuben Ruby was so inspired by Garrison’s words that he would join with white abolitionists in Portland to form one of the first anti-slavery societies in the state. Next month, we will explore the role of Black Mainers in the abolitionist movement and politics during the 1830s and 40s