Wed Feb 21, 2018 5:30pm

Black Activists’ Transatlantic Reception

Sponsored by: New Haven Museum

In 1888, Frederick Douglass gave a public address at New Haven’s Hyperion Theatre—the crowd clapped and cheered for two minutes afterward. But, according to scholar Hannah-Rose Murray, a visiting fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University, Douglass’ reception in America had not always been so hospitable. Particularly in the years before the Civil War, he was viciously attacked both in person and in the press. When Douglass visited Britain in 1845, however, he was met with almost universal admiration. Murray will discuss Douglass and other African-American abolitionists who traveled to Britain, during a free presentation, “Frederick Douglass: New Haven to Great Britain,” at the New Haven Museum on Wednesday, February 21, 2018, at 5:30 p.m. 

In one of abolitionism’s most extraordinary chapters, scores of black activists like Douglass travelled to England, Ireland, Scotland and even parts of rural Wales to educate the British public on slavery. Black men and women lectured in large cities and tiny fishing villages, wrote and published narratives, stayed with influential reformers and ensured millions of words were written about them in the newspapers. Victorian Britons followed the movements of black Americans from the 1830s until decades after the Civil War, often cramming into tiny churches or town halls to curb an insatiable appetite for details about American slavery. Newspapers called Douglass a “Negro Hercules” and compared him to famous Classical orators. He spoke to hundreds of thousands of people between 1845-1847, and returned to America as the most famous African American in the transatlantic world.

Murray will also highlight how the American and British press responded to Douglass’ sensational British lecturing tour. He gave over 300 lectures in the British Isles but was particularly fond of retelling one story that involved “a Connecticut Yankee.” Hartford citizens were shocked to learn that during his journey to Liverpool via steamship, Douglass was nearly thrown overboard by a pro-slavery mob, led by a slaveholder born in Connecticut.

Douglass famously contrasted the warm reception he received throughout his travels in Ireland to those he often received in the United States in a letter to the editor of “The Charter Oak,” published on February 12, 1846, noting:
“…In thinking of America I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky—her grand old woods—her fertile fields her beautiful rivers—her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked, my joy is soon turned to mourning. When I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slaveholding, robbery and wrong—when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten, and that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled, with unutterable loathing, and led to reproach myself that anything could fall from my lips in praise of such a land…”

Murray received a Ph.D. from the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham and is a visiting Fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University. Her research focuses on African American transatlantic visits to Britain between the 1830s and the 1890s. Murray posits that inspiring men and women like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells made a huge impact on British society, and educated millions of people about the brutal nature of American slavery and lynching. They challenged British and American racism, and forever changed the course of transatlantic history. Murray has created a website dedicated to their experiences,, www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com, which maps their speaking locations across Britain, and incorporates her own research and writing on black performance, celebrity and networking strategies in Britain, and the talks, plays and exhibitions she has organized on both sides of the Atlantic.

The New Haven Museum has been collecting, preserving, and interpreting the history and heritage of Greater New Haven since its inception as the New Haven Colony Historical Society in 1862. Located in downtown New Haven at 114 Whitney Avenue, the Museum brings more than 375 years of New Haven history to life through its collections, exhibitions, programs and outreach. For more information visit www.newhavenmuseum.org or Facebook.com/NewHavenMuseum or call 203-562-4183.

Admission: Free
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