March 26, 2007

Sallie Holley--Inspiration From Our History

This bit of US history is the latest in a series of posts written in part to call attention to the essential new book, The Cost of Privilege. This one highlights an abolitionist little remembered today, a white woman named Salley Holley. Because she is relatively unknown, I will front-end load this essay with three reasons why she is important to us now.

1. At a time when US society held that women should avoid mixed company and public spaces, Sallie Holley became one of the small, much-loved, much-reviled band of women speakers who took to the platform and the pulpit to denounce slavery.

2. She lived her whole adult life with a supportive companion, Caroline Putnam, whom she met at college. While I have no knowledge of what they did in bed, and no desire to impose ahistorical categories on them, anybody wishing to claim them as foremothers of modern lesbian people's fighters like Audre Lorde will get no argument from me.

3. Most important, Sallie Holley and Caroline Putnam stayed with the struggle for justice for African Americans until their deaths, long after many of their white abolitionist comrades had moved on to currency reform, women's suffrage, spiritualism, temperance or commercial pursuits. It is no easy thing to be a revolutionary for an entire lifetime, and while she never described herself that way, that's what she was.

I have taken the liberty of laying out Sallie Holley's life in four stages, or battles. Most of this piece is drawn from a book entitled A Life For Liberty, published in 1899. It is a compilation of Sallie Holley's letters and excerpts, selected and introduced by a minister named John White Chadwick, who knew Sallie and many in her circle. I doubt that even the late Sonny Bono can restore copyright to it from beyond the grave and hope that someone will scan, OCR, and post a copy on the Internet.

Sallie Holley's First Battle--To Be A Full Human Being

Sallie, born in 1817, was fortunate in her father. Myron Holley was a politician and businessman who had extremely progressive ideas for his era. He loved his children and paid as much attention to the education of his daughters as his sons, at a time when the debate was "Should women learn the alphabet?" Sallie always attributed her anti-slavery values to his teachings. He did not become actively involved until the late 1830s when he helped bring into being the Liberty Party, an early precursor of Lincoln's Republicans and the first US party with an organized abolitionist group at its core. He died, barely solvent, in 1841.

From him she also got her religion, a strong New England Unitarianism. Salley remained extremely interested in religious matters her whole life, for their own hold on her, as well as because in the 19th century they were so deeply intertwined with the political issues of the day (so unlike our own time). Her values were strongly held. While young, she met General Childs and challenged him on the morality of the Seminole war, in which he had taken part:

He confessed its injustice but pleaded that as a soldier he must obey the commands of his superiors. Miss Holley did not see why.
Staying with family, she considered a career teaching or nursing, but friends persuaded her to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, and she went in 1847. Oberlin was a radical place--formed in 1835, it admitted women and Black people, unheard of at the time. When a scholarship ran out, she supported herself doing washing, baby-sitting, baking, tutoring, and sewing.

Even at radical Oberlin, Sallie Holley was something of a rebel, the only Unitarian and an increasingly "ultra" abolitionist. She met and soon was inseparable from Caroline Putnam, a fellow student. Caroline's description, from half a century later, of Sallie speaking at graduation resonates with love and appreciation:
She was radiantly lovely as she stepped forward on that great stage of the Oberlin Tabernacle, animated by the preceding music, her deep blue eyes looking off from her manuscript now and then to more earnestly impress her heretical 'Ideal of Womanhood.' Her ideas put bees in the bonnets of the sages, humming as they did with women's right to vote, to preach and with the brightest humour, poetry, and satire...

Salley Holley's Second Battle--To End Slavery

What Caroline Putnam refers to as "the momentous, the decisive convention of our lives" came in Litchfield, Ohio in 1852:
Among the speakers at this meeting was Abby Kelley Foster, who made an eloquent appeal to her listeners in behalf of the slave-woman and asked:

"Who in this great assembly is willing to plead her cause?"

At the close of her address and in the recess of the meeting Miss Holley advanced to say, 'I will plead the cause of the slave-woman.'

She wrote Caroline, "Putty, I've decided to be an anti-slavery lecturer!"

True to her pledge, she hit the speaking trail agitating against slavery and collecting funds for William Henry Garrison's magazine, The Liberator, and the American Anti-Slavery Society. Traveling from village to village by buggy and wagon, staying with strangers, facing crowds ranging from rapt to hostile, she lived "the rough and tumble kind of a life the anti-slavery lecturer experiences."

Her unrelenting attitude was captured in one letter from Farmersville, NY:
A week or two ago at a common school celebration in this village, the county superintendent invited me to address the children. Accordingly I told them of the slave-children in this country, who are not allowed to read or write or spell or commit to memory the multiplication table which they had just repeated so well. Whereupon two Buchanan men rose up and left in high indignation that 'an abolition lecture was poked at them.' I am very sorry to even seem rude and 'fanatical' but know not how to avoid it and be faithful to the cause of the slave. In fact, nothing else is so important and proper for all occasions, to be talked of, as the slave and his cause.

Sallie Hollie's Third Battle--To Resist The Dissolution Of The Anti-Slavery Movement After The Civil War

Although she was a coworker and follower of the pacifist William Lloyd Garrison, like him, she welcomed the war that followed Lincoln's election in 1860. Even before that,
on the day following John Brown's raid, she thanked God in the prayer before her lecture in Ellsworth, Maine, for John Brown's heroic deed.

After the passage of the 13th Amendment and the end of the Civil War, new tasks presented themselves. In August, 1865, she attended an Oberlin reunion:
They insisted on my relating what I had been about. I said I was afraid they wouldn't care to hear how I had been holding anti-slavery meetings all these years and still 'spoke in public.' Mr. Cooper asked what I lectured upon now. 'Oh,' I said, 'Black folks must vote all through the country.' Helen Finney, who was present with her husband, General Cox, said she thought I wanted women to vote. 'Oh, yes!" I said, 'that's inevitable,' whereupon there was 'immense sensation,'as the newspapers say.
Garrison and others argued that the goal of the American Anti-Slavery Society had been accomplished with Emancipation and it should vote itself out of business. The internal struggle which followed raged for five years, with Sallie Holley among the most passionate of those arguing that it was still needed.

Sallie wrote a scathing letter to one woman who favored closing it down, and it was published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard in 1868. This excerpt will give the flavor:
It is heartless, cold-blooded, worldly apathy, that can object to the name or the work of an Anti- Slavery Society. Since this New Year began, three negroes were seized in Tennessee, bound over logs, and beaten nearly dead, because they voted the Republican ticket. Three thousand black men in Mississippi petition Congress to send them to Liberia. In their touching language, "The white people have all the land, all the money, all the education. Many of the planters refuse to pay us all to gether, and they work generally to prevent the education of our children." And you tell me there is no need of an Anti-Slavery Society.

See black men all over the South persecuted, driven from homes, such as they have had, denied work and bread, for daring to vote loyally. See them still shot down--killed by all the cowardly, ruffianly means known to the old barbaric days of slavery--and then, if you have a human heart, ask the American Anti-Slavery Society to stop its work, if you can! Are you afraid the black people will have too many friends, too much justice, too much liberty?

Sally Hollie's Fourth Battle--To Educate and Empower The Freed Slaves

When the struggle to preserve the American Anti-Slavery Society was finally lost, in 1870, she undertook the battle that would last until her death. Two years earlier, in 1868, her beloved Caroline had moved to Lottsburg, Virginia and started a school for the freed slaves in the area. As it became clear that the defeated Southern slavocracy craved revenge and restoration and that the North was unwilling to force them to accept defeat, Sallie joined Caroline Putnam there in 1870, at the age of 52. Through the coming decades they lived at the Holly School, as Caroline named it, leaving one at a time for an annual trip North to beg funds and supplies from friends and old movement comrades.

They worked unrelentingly, growing much of their food in a massive garden and steadily improving the facilities for their students, and did so under a near-total boycott of any communication by their white neighbors:
Though our new schoolhouse is not entirely completed at this date, yet I rejoice to write, the second coat of plaster is this day going on and by November our school will enter triumphantly. These Virgina rebels are fairly confounded to see our schoolhouse spring up so magically, and our fortunes revive from their hostile tread. Like the chamomile bed, the more it is trod upon, the more fragrant and lively it becomes. Our coloured friends are cheered to the vary marrow of their bones. Their faces shine as day after day they call on us to exult and crow. Still we know the enemy ever sits with lance in rest to take advantage as often as he can make a deadly thrust.

One can sense the deep isolation of these two properly-brought-up New England ladies in Sallie's response to Southern religion, so different from the austere Unitarianism and subdued Quakerism with which she was so familiar:
The white folks' campmeeting has just ended. Over thirty conversions! The coloured 'protracted meeting' is this week in full blast, making night hideous with terrible noises.' All this kind of religion seems to me worthless. It doesn't save from lies and stealing. Nobody's character is elevated or ennobled. Vanity and self-conceit are fostered. People pray and shout and say the Holy Ghost is moving their souls! It is awful.

This last is only one example of the class bias and white paternalism that appear in Sallie Hollie's letters, and it should not be swept under the rug. But weighed against it must be the consistency with which she fought and taught and organized. In late 1892, with only scraps of the Reconstruction program in the South left, she laments that after 25 years of organizing to hold Republican majorities in local elections and relentless vote rigging by the white Democrats,
our Lottsburgh ex-slave-holders boast that they will get the post office in March. One of the most bitter told a white woman that 'That old Yankee,' meaning me, 'has ruined these Lottsburgh niggers, making them think they are as good as anybody.'

Shortly thereafter, on her annual retreat to New York, Sallie Holley caught a chill, developed pneumonia and died on January 12, 1893. She was 74, and still fighting.

In closing, let me suggest that the greatest contribution Salley Hollie and Caroline Putnam made to this country probably took the form of the thousands of African Americans who passed through the Holley school. Some went North to settle in Baltimore and New York. Others stayed in the area and used what they had learned to make better lives for their families. But many fanned out across the South, like men and women educated at similar schools, taking teaching jobs and ensuring that the white power structure would never again be able to enforce the near-universal illiteracy which had helped keep Black America in slavery's chains.


Anonymous said...

Just a quick note. "A Life for Liberty" has just recently (summer '07) been reprinted in an inexpensive, if low-quality, paperback, available at Amazon and probably elsewhere. While the publisher's disclaimer about its legibility is discouraging, as far as I can tell the problems are limited to smudges and the like. -- JP

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article which was linked to in a comment by lao hong han on a DailyKos "diary" . It is good to read of such strong, principled leaders!

Jimmy M. Sisson said...

Thanks Jimmy for this Fire on the Mountain article about Sallie HOLLEY.

I just found that Sallie HOLLEY was my maternal 3rd cousin, 4XR.