Blog #2: Esther Carpenter Pierce: Daughter, Wife and Confidante of Freedom’s Friends

Hello all.


Just to quickly recap…  My name is Shawna Wright.  I am a senior at Pace’s New York City campus, and I am currently participating in this year’s Student-Faculty Research Program with Dr. von Huene Greenberg, a faculty member at Pace’s Pleasantville campus.  The title of our research project is “Esther Carpenter Pierce: Daughter, Wife and Confidante of Freedom’s Friends.”  Esther was the daughter of Joseph Carpenter and the wife of Moses Pierce, all were devout Quaker abolitionists.


My current job in the research project is to read all three of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies and to identify, and make note of, any mention of the Underground Railroad, Quakers, abolitionists, or New York, that could reveal a direct connection between Douglass and Esther Carpenter Pierce.  Thus far, I have read the first two of Douglass’ autobiographies: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and “My Bondage and My Freedom,” and I have found several links between Douglass and the aforementioned subjects.


Douglass escaped from Baltimore, Maryland in September of 1838, and fled to New York City where a fugitive ex-slave introduced him to David Ruggles and the Underground Railroad.  Ruggles took Douglas in “to his boarding-house at the corner of Church and Lespenard Streets” (Douglass 87).  Less than two weeks later, Douglass and his wife, Anna Murray, with whom he was reunited in New York City, left for New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Once there, they were taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson who provided them with kindness, food, and shelter, and most importantly, security.  At each stage of Douglass’ northern exodus, he changed his surname to evade capture.  It is worth noting that Douglass gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing what was to be his final surname—Douglass.


Douglass does not specifically mention the Underground Railroad until two-thirds into his text, “My Bondage and My Freedom.”  And, Douglass actually refers to it as the “Upper-ground Railroad” (Douglass 210).  This is not a mistake, but done to make a point.  He recognized that while those who declared their active involvement in the Underground network spoke bravely, they did so at the expense of their stated purpose—making something public that should have been kept a secret, ultimately put the fugitives in greater danger of being caught and sold back into slavery.


It was in New Bedford that Douglass was introduced to the Quaker community.  On his first afternoon in New Bedford, Douglass states that, “the sight of the broad brim and the plain, Quaker dress, which met [me] at every turn, greatly increased [my] sense of freedom and security.  ‘I am among the Quakers,’ [Douglass] thought, ‘and am safe” (Douglass 223).  Douglass soon came to understand that the Quaker community was a fugitive’s friend—that the Quakers were “friends of freedom.”


The anti-slavery convention held in Nantucket in the summer of 1841 was a major turning point for Douglass.  It was there that he met the prominent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, with whom he would become great friends.  Garrison is best known as the editor of the abolitionist newspaper the, “Liberator,” and for being the founder of the “American Anti-Slavery Society.”  It was Garrison who encouraged Douglass to give his first speech at the anti-slavery convention.  And, it was following the convention that Douglass became a member of the “American Anti-Slavery Society” (he would eventually became a key leader of the society), and when Douglass also became a Garrisonian.  Thereafter, he pushed for the immediate abolition of slavery and for racial equality at every opportunity.


Douglass’ escape took him to New York City, but in the course of his life as a “Freeman,” Douglass traveled throughout the state—Albany, Rochester, and New York City—to deliver countless lectures, orations, and speeches on the topic of slavery.  About a decade after his initial escape, Douglass settled in Rochester, New York to begin the circulation of his own abolitionist newspaper.  Douglass edited and published this newspaper on his own, and funded it with the proceeds of his many lectures.


As I think about the information I have gathered thus far, two key relationships, which I have not fully reflected on, strike me as interesting and important.  First, is the relationship between Douglass and David Ruggles.  And the second is the possible connection between Douglass and Lydia Marie Child—the renowned abolitionist, women’s activist, and author.  They are intriguing in that each suggests the possibility of a connection between Douglass and Esther Carpenter Pierce—the focus of my and Dr. von Huene Greenberg’s research—as Esther was connected to both Ruggles and Child.


Douglass, Ruggles, and Child were all well-known abolitionists.  And, Dr. von Huene Greenberg has already established a link between Ruggles, Child, and Esther.  While researching Moses Pierce for an article published in The Westchester Historian in the winter of 2012, Dr. von Huene Greenberg concluded that both Ruggles and Child stayed at the home of the Carpenter’s (Esther’s parents) on separate occasions: Ruggles after he became blind, and Child “to escape abolitionist violence in New York [that] lasted nearly six months, from September 1835 to March 1836” (Greenberg 14).  In fact, Esther and Child became correspondents, and Esther even named her second daughter after Child.


In the course of my research, I have observed that Douglas and Child may have had cause to interact as well.  Douglass was a key leader of the “American Anti-Slavery Society” of which Child was also a member.  Child and her husband, David, established the “Anti-Slavery Standard,” which was the official weekly newspaper of the “American Anti-Slavery Society,” and for which Douglass helped secure subscribers, as stated in “My Bondage and My Freedom.”


So, if Douglass and Ruggles were good friends, and if Ruggles and Esther’s father, Joseph Carpenter, were good friends, then could those connections have caused the paths of Douglass and Esther to cross at some point?  Likewise, if Esther and Child were good friends, and if Douglass and Child shared affiliations, then could those connections have also caused the paths of Douglass and Esther to cross at some point?  I am hoping that in the continued progress of my research, some light will be shed on these questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *