Sarah Parker Remond

A trailblazing African American female abolitionist in Manchester

by Serena Robinson

Cotton, sewage, cotton, traffic, cotton, dirt, cotton, cotton, cotton. This was Manchester in the mid-19th century, dubbed ‘Cottonopolis’, literally the city of cotton. In the 1850s, the manufacturing region centred on Manchester was responsible for 40 percent of the world’s cotton textiles output.  

Engraving showing the smoking chimney’s of Manchester’s cotton mills, 1834.
Science Museum Group Collection.

Transatlantic trading relations were vital to the booming textile industry. The southern United States supplied the vast majority of the raw cotton spun and woven in Manchester’s mills. As a commodity, cotton drove industrialisation, created global trading connections and spurred the rise of capitalism, but at an untold human cost. 

On American plantations enslaved people were forced to undertake manual labour to plant, pick and process cotton. From sunrise to sunset, for hour upon hour, women, men and children carried out blistering, back-breaking work. In return for this gruelling labour, they received a lifetime of dehumanisation and trauma.  

 

eNSLAVED MEN AND WOMEN PLANTING COTTON Seed.

Like cotton, enslaved people, who were legally considered property, were a highly sought-after commodity, fuelling the economies of Britain and the United States. Although British slavery was abolished between 1834 and 1839, enslavement continued in America. The country’s slave plantations supplied 80 percent of Manchester’s raw cotton during the 1850s. Manchester’s manufacturers were only able to get raw cotton at the prices and in the quantities they needed because of this system of human exploitation. 

The fight for the abolition of slavery forged relationships between a diverse range of people; men and women, Black and white, freed and enslaved, British and American. These global connections played a vital role in the successes of anti-slavery campaigning. Although the narrative around abolitionism has often been portrayed through a white and male-centric lens, women and people of colour played a central role in the movement and its successes. 

“When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages; for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.”  

African American abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, 1845.

The subject of this story one remarkable African American woman, Sarah Parker Remond, who journeyed across the Atlantic to Britain to speak of the horrifying truths of slavery and promote abolition, and the impact of her visit to Manchester. 

An anti-slavery warrior 

Born a free woman in Salem, Massachusetts in 1826 to a staunchly abolitionist family, Remond was destined to be an anti-slavery warrior. By age 16, she had already given her first anti-slavery lecture. She went on to speak eloquently and widely on the importance of Black emancipation, daring to do what society deemed inappropriate for women, especially Black women; speaking out against the powerful and educated patriarchy. She battled stereotypes, travelling unescorted nationally and internationally to campaign against slavery. 

Portrait of Sarah Parker Remond, used by UCL’s Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation.
Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

One momentous occasion that shaped Remond’s fierce activist core occurred in 1853, when she was 27. Attending the theatre with friends, her group found themselves ushered into the segregated section by the theatre’s manager. Refusing to accept this discrimination and dehumanisation, Sarah and her companions refused to be seated. Police were called and one officer handled Remond aggressively, injuring her. She successfully sued the theatre, winning $500 in compensation.  

Sarah Parker Remond experienced racism and sexism which created barriers that blocked a multitude of opportunities. She constantly challenged this discrimination, proactively campaigning for racial and gendered equality. One way she did this was by engaging with fellow female abolitionists through American and British anti-slavery networks. 

The Manchester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society 

Five years before Sarah Parker Remond’s arrival in Manchester, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society held a conference which had two female delegates, Rebecca Whitelegge and Rebecca Moore. They were founding members of the Manchester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. The society held meetings, shared anti-slavery pamphlets, raised funds and discussed ways of promoting the anti-slavery cause. 

Page from a Manchester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society pamphlet, about 1859.

The Manchester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Committee also interacted with other abolitionist organisations and societies, including the Boston Anti-Slavery Bazaar, a fundraising event led by Maria Weston Chapman. Chapman, like Sarah Parker Remond, hailed from Massachusetts and was a leading abolitionist.  

The Manchester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Committee and the Boston Anti-Slavery Bazaar formed part of a transatlantic sisterhood of women who exchanged information and views on politics, women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. These networks thrived in the 1840s and 1850s alongside the birth of first wave feminism. Such relationships were vital for moral support, solidarity, friendship and sympathy. It was these transatlantic connections which brought Sarah Parker Remond, invited by the women of the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, to give a lecture Manchester in 1859 as part of her European tour. 

Letter from Rebecca Whitelegge of the Manchester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society reporting on recent abolitionist developments. The highlighted section reads: “two lectures from our friend Miss Remond, which, in every respect but a pecuniary one were truly successful.” The Society didn’t make money from them but raised awareness and drew in audiences. Read full text here.

Sarah Parker Remond in Britain 

Sarah Parker Remond was one of the first female African American lecturers in Britain. In a letter to fellow abolitionist Abby Kelley Foster, she encapsulated her deep passions for the anti-slavery cause, using the biblical quote, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” Besides her passion, she also described her anxiety around travelling as a lone Black woman, sharing her fears with Foster that “no matter how [she] goes, the spirit of prejudice will meet [her].” However, judging from Remond’s reflections on her visit, her experience in Britain may have contradicted this norm.  

Arriving in Liverpool on January 12th 1859 on the steamer Arabia, after a cold, perilous and seasickness-ridden journey, Remond needed a few days of recuperation at fellow abolitionist William Robeson’s home before beginning her anti-slavery tour. Promptly after her recovery, Remond began an intensive timetable of public speeches, beginning in Liverpool on 21st January 1859. 

From her very first lecture, local newspapers reported widely on the significance of her impact. In Warrington, Remond’s talk was so well received that a group of women presented her with a silver watch, with an acknowledgment of her as a sister. This acceptance and sense of sorority was overwhelming to Remond, who declared: “I have been received as a sister by white women for the first time in my life … I have received a sympathy I never was offered before.” 

the athenaeum where sarah parker remond spoke.

Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives.

Addressing Cottonopolis 

After a series of successful talks, Sarah Parker Remond arrived in Manchester to deliver an anti-slavery lecture at the Manchester Athenaeum on 14th September 1859. The Athenaeum, now part of Manchester Art Gallery, was a hub of academic and intellectual discussion and debate, priding itself on the ‘advancement and diffusion of knowledge’, with the likes of Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli as members. Surrounded by cotton mills and warehouses, there was a marked disparity between the refinement of the building and its patrons and the lives of the cotton workers and enslaved people upon whose labour the city’s wealth and prestige was built.  

Indicating how highly regarded she was and the importance attached to this visit, Remond was introduced by the Mayor of Manchester. According to the Manchester Weekly Times, her lecture opened by stating that she was ‘an agent of no society’, indicating that she was there on her own account as an independent Black woman to speak on rampant slavery and Manchester’s complicity in the slave trade. 

Report on Remond’s lecture from Manchester Weekly Times, 14 September, 1859.
British Newspaper Archive.

Although travelling without official backing of an abolitionist organisation made funding and arrangements more difficult, using her personal networks, particularly female correspondents, meant that Remond could speak her mind without sanction. 

Demonstrating her phenomenal skill as a speaker and campaigner, central to her message was highlighting the great and uncomfortable injustice unpinning Manchester’s wealth. She made powerful connections between the city’s cotton trade and the enslaved people being brutalised on the plantations in her native country: 

“When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those eighty thousand cotton plantations on which was grown the one hundred and twenty-five millions of dollars’ worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of the money ever reached the hands of the labourers.”  

Sarah Parker Remond, 1859. 

The audience was “attentive and enthusiastic throughout”, as recorded by The National Anti-Slavery Standard. She asked rhetorical questions such as “what is life without hope?” appealing to the spectators emotionally and morally. She instilled a sense of collective action amongst the listeners. The event attracted many young people, who Remond singled out, stressing how important it was for them to understand the atrocities of slavery. 

As the speech reached a crescendo, Mancunians were asked to rally and raise their voice “until the shackles of the American slave melt like dew before the morning sun.” She reached out particularly to the female audience members, highlighting the impact on enslaved girls and women of sexual abuse from their owners in a system with no legal protection. Remond described the “eight hundred thousand” children of mixed African and European origin, nine-tenths of whom are the children of white fathers” who were “constantly sold by their parents, for the slave follows the conditions of the mother.”

Abolitionist campaigner Harriet Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl two years after Remond’s Manchester visit, a work which gave a searingly honest first-hand account of the institutionalised harassment and abuse of enslaved women and girls. You can read the book online here.

As a strident female voice, she could articulate issues impacting women in a way male campaigners could not and draw upon the efforts of transatlantic sisterhoods and female abolitionist networks that were essential to the anti-slavery cause, particularly as many male-dominated abolitionist societies were in decline in the 1840s and 1850s.

Sarah Parker Remond’s impact 

Sarah Parker Remond’s passionate speech gave the crowd a deeper understanding of the injustices of slavery, as well as the intimate connections Manchester had with this system of human exploitation.  Soon after the speech, the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States triggered the Lancashire Cotton Famine. Despite great hardship, Manchester remained largely supportive of the Union. It is not hard to believe that Sarah Parker Remond’s brutally honest speech, which electrified her audience and solidified transatlantic connections in the fight for abolition, had a role to play. 

Remond continued to do remarkable activist work throughout her life. She was the only woman of colour known to have signed the 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition and she later studied to become a doctor in Italy. Her legacy is one of sheer courage, determination and passion.  

Fast forward to the 21st century and the need to cherish and recover Black histories, particularly the stories of women like Sarah Parker Remond who gained education, prominence, and success despite the discrimination they faced, are more important than ever. Venessa Scott, a Manchester based artist, reignited Remond’s story last year, commemorating her journey to Manchester through an art piece commissioned by Manchester Art Gallery. 

The work of activists like Sarah Parker Remond paved the way for the Black Lives Matter movement, which was started by three radical African American women in 2013. Over 154 years after Remond’s abolitionist adventure, Black Lives Matter continues to fight for the rights, freedoms and humanity of Black people. Remond is a true inspiration to women and a shining example of the good that can come from perseverance and collective action against injustice.”

Venessa Scott.

Artwork by Venessa Scott commemorating Sarah Parker Remond, 2020, commissioned by Manchester Art Gallery.
Website: venessascott.co.uk Twitter: @venessascott_uk Facebook: venessascottuk Instagram venessascott_uk

Find out more 

Online

University of London, A Voice for Freedom: The Life of Sarah Parker Remond.  

Rattlebag and Rhubarb, Sarah Parker Remond and the Cotton Workers of Lancashire.  

Hannah Ruddle, ‘COTTON IS KING!’ Sarah Parker Remond, Manchester and the Abolitionist Movement in Britain and America, 1859-1861.  

Manchester Art Gallery, Sarah Parker Remond Commission. 

Books

Clare Midgley, Women against Slavery: The British Campaign 1780 – 1870, 1992. 

Sirpa Salenius, An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe, 2016. 

Julie Roy Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement, 1998. 

This project has been supported by the UCL UK Office, supporting the development of collaborations and research impact across the UK.