Interviews August 28, 2023

A revolution of runaways: An interview with Jesse Olsavsky

The history of the fight against enslavement in the Americas is a rich and multi-faceted one. It should, therefore, come as no wonder that there are still several aspects of it to be disinterred, and which the growing and dynamic scholarship on slavery and emancipation is, year after year, progressively bringing to light. Nonetheless, the new story recounted in the latest book by Jesse Olsavsky (Assistant Professor of History, Duke Kunshan University), The Most Absolute Abolition: Runaways, Vigilance Committees, and the Rise of Revolutionary Abolitionism, 1835–1861 (Louisiana State University Press, 2022), is a wondrous one. This is the history of the Vigilance Committees based in US northeastern cities which organized and supervised the submerged network of secret “lines”, safe “stations”, and trusted “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, along which thousands of African Americans travelled northward, by land and by sea, in the decades preceding the Civil War. Established since the mid-1830s, the Vigilance Committees were urban organizations aimed at illegally assisting enslaved persons escaping slavery in the South, as well as protecting and agitating on behalf of those who had already escaped. These Committees, as the author puts it, represented “a movement within the movement” of abolitionism, but also a form of activism which radicalized anti-slavery militancy and revolutionized its objectives, shifting its focus from the conversion of whites to the abolitionist cause to the desires and needs of the enslaved themselves. Most interestingly, Olsavsky’s study shows how the Vigilance Committees became crucial sites of convergence between northern abolitionists and southern fugitives, and radical spaces of production of knowledge about slavery, communication of the strategies to escape it, and debate around the meanings of freedom.

- Matilde Cazzola, Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory


MC: I would like to start by asking you, what about your personal journey towards this research? What drew you to undertake this project?

JO: Thanks for the opportunity to discuss the book. I would say that the journey towards this book was relatively straightforward in the sense that before I was a historian, I was mainly interested in activism: trade union activism, prison reform, and prison abolition. And here particularly you have to confront the fact that there is within the United States a major race divide, a divide that has crippled many social movements in the US, such as the Labour Movement. Because of that many people, not just myself, turn towards the abolitionists for inspiration. I wanted to study everything that I could about the abolitionist movement to understand both the past of the country that I live in, but also its possible future trajectories. The other thing is that the abolition of slavery and the US Civil War, you could say, were the closest that the United States came to a revolution. So, I have tried to understand and read as much as I could about it, to figure out what it accomplished and what its limits were. These were the main reasons that I started to study abolitionism and started to look at Vigilance Committees in particular, because what appeared to me was that Vigilance Committees were the most radical wing of the interracial abolitionist movement.


MC: So many excellent histories of slavery abolition have tended to focus on one individual or a select number of exceptional ones, usually men. Your book is different because it is a people’s history of abolition, or as you call it, a history from below of abolition. Could you tell us more about the diverse and multi-layered universe of the Vigilance Committees, and the abolitionist history from below that their activism shaped?

JO: Vigilance Committees were essentially self-defence organizations. They emerged in the 1830s. They were interracial, Black-led organizations, which made them rather unique. Their main purpose was to defend African American communities, largely in urban areas in the northern states, from police and slavecatchers, who would sometimes come and kidnap people or claim people to be fugitives and take them back to the South. But they also helped probably around 10,000 enslaved people to escape the plantation system of the South, and to go to wherever they wanted to go, whether it was to stay in northern cities, go to Canada, the West Indies, Haiti, the British Isles. The Committees also did a lot of public work assisting or promoting the cause of fugitive aid. And what was unique about them was their sheer diversity. As I said, these were Black-led organizations in which most of the activists were African American. But they also had a lot of white allies. Whereas in some of the mainstream anti-slavery societies you often had a white middle-class leadership as well as a lot of Black supporters, Vigilance Committees had a Black leadership with white middle-class allies.

Another fascinating thing that I show in the book, is that almost every major abolitionist or social revolutionary active in the mid-19th century was in some way or another, working with the Committees or active within them or observing them from afar and writing about them with a great deal of inspiration and verve. But I discovered in my research that the story could not only be about them, because there were thousands of other people involved in these organizations. Thus, the book is much more of a montage with a lot of characters moving in and out. These were all kinds of people from every walk of life, every race, class, gender, age, and nationality – from the West Indies to West Africa, from Brazil to Canada. Waiters and workers at hotels would inform the Vigilance Committees of arriving slavecatchers who were staying the night at that hotel; also, dockworkers, because one third or more of all fugitives came by sea and they sailed away on ships. Or they went on ships in which the captain and/or the crew were actively abolitionists. Women did a lot of work, too – I would say the majority of the work of the Vigilance Committees because much of this was domestic work and basic care work, and in a number of cases I document women who were housewives and hid fugitives without the knowledge of their racist and anti-abolitionist husbands.

More importantly, as many as 10,000 fugitives came to the Committees and imparted their knowledge. Remarkably, Vigilance Committees kept detailed records of their interviews with fugitives, and I document nearly 2,000 of these interviews in which fugitives discussed their experiences of flight, what they thought of slavery, what they thought about freedom, and the tactics that they used. It was through such dialogues between runaways and abolitionists that the runaway, ultimately, became the teacher and leader of the abolitionist movement. One of the major arguments of this book is that, because so many radicals of such diverse backgrounds came together in the Vigilance Committees to cooperate and help push forward the cause of abolition, the Committees became crucibles of radical ideas and debates. So often the Underground Railroad is written as a technical history of how fugitives moved from one place to the other. The point in my book is that, in the process of doing all that, ideas were being created, not only about how to resist slavery, but also feminist, reparationist, and prison abolitionist ideas too.


MC: In a time period full of white citizens-vigilantes looking for runaways, the history that you tell is about differently vigilant groups of activists, who instead strategized on how to “steal” enslaved people from southern plantations. Do you see your book as pioneering a new field of investigation that we might call a counter-history of vigilantism, or a history of vigilantism from below?

JO: That’s an interesting question, because I hadn’t really thought of it as counter-vigilance. Certainly counter-policing is what I had thought of. But there is an important point here about vigilance that I intimated in the book. And that is that during the 19th century in the US, there were all kinds of organizations that called themselves “vigilance committees”. My suspicion is that abolitionists used the term to cover up what exactly they were doing and give it a veneer of legitimacy. Historians have often viewed abolitionist Vigilance Committees as part of a spectrum of different kinds of vigilante organizations in 19th-century US society. If you think of Alexis de Tocqueville and his famous Democracy in America, what he found so great about American democracy, was that the state, in his view, wasn’t large or intrusive. This allowed for an opening within civil society for groups of citizens to collectively self-organize and take the kind of work that the state would normally do for them. Non-abolitionist vigilance committees during this time would, for example, round up criminals, round up the poor and put them into the poorhouses, round up beggars on the streets, or form militias. More significantly, such non-abolitionist vigilance committees formed slave patrols, fought Native Americans, and enforced the constitutionally sanctioned Fugitive Slave Laws. In most cases such non-abolitionists vigilance committees sought to help the state in enforcing the law. All of these things fit under Tocqueville’s problematic notion of democratic self-organization of civil society, people doing the work of the state instead of the state.

Now, I am very critical of this idea that abolitionist Vigilance Committees should be situated on this spectrum of vigilantism, because they were doing something very different. They were explicitly not doing the work of the state. They were in fact undermining the state, you could say, and undermining the Constitution which backed the Fugitive Slave Law. Vigilance Committee activists justified undermining earthly laws by arguing that they were upholding “the higher law” – the law of conscience – which was above or beyond any kind of state or constitution or legal enactment; it was the law of morality, some would say it was given to them by God. Because they were not engaging in this kind of civil society vigilance that the other organizations were doing, they became spaces of creativity. If you look at Vigilance Committee meetings, they were debating all different kinds of things: feminism, anti-racism, the nature of prisons, they sang songs, they composed poetry, they helped in the writing of slave narratives. So, they did all kinds of things, and they were not limited to a single issue, and certainly not limited to the existing order of things.


MC: Building and expanding on Du Bois’s notion of a general strike, the book shows how the enslaved and more particularly the runaways among them were the real driving force behind abolition in the US as they raised the stakes of the anti-slavery movement, from individual escape to fugitive aid to mass desertion. You also show, conversely, how masters, as well as the state ultimately allied with the slave power, were driven by a so-called “drapetophobia”. Can you tell us more on this concept of drapetophobia and this twofold movement: on the one hand, the enslaved running and, on the other hand, state politics reacting in order to prevent and contain this running?

JO: I’m glad you caught the joke about drapetophobia. Basically, I was inverting Samuel Cartwright, the pro-slavery physician who argued that running away from slavery was a sort of disease that many enslaved people had, and he called it “drapetomania”. And I inverted this: I say that slave-owners, in fact, were the ones with drapetophobia, the fear of their workers running away from them. And, really, this was a long-standing fear amongst the slave-owning class. For the purposes of my narrative, this story really takes off after the 1830s: the suppression of Nat Turner’s rebellion basically convinced enslaved people that slave insurrection as the way to end slavery probably would not happen in a white-majority society in which federal power was geared towards preventing slave insurrections and suppressing them. And so, they run and run, and they had many new places to run to because the British Empire had abolished slavery. Mexico had abolished slavery. Haiti had abolished slavery. There were many places to go to, including the North, even though it was much more precarious there. Flight then became the main means of resistance. It was not a chaotic, spontaneous mass movement, but became organized and the Vigilance Committees, I argue, played a substantial role, during a period of thirty years, in organizing that resistance, and welding it to the public abolitionist movement in the North.


MC: Do you think that the history of fugitives and the history of Vigilance Committees teach us how to rethink the very idea of revolution and of what is revolutionary?

JO: Yes, in some ways, running away always had revolutionary potential and implications. In the case of the United States, running was an active defiance of the US Constitution. And it was also an explicit and immediate withdrawal of one’s labour power and of one’s reproductive power from the master. It was a kind of theft, a self-theft, which undermined the institution of private property as it existed. So in some almost basic sense, even conventional sense, it was revolutionary. Because slavery was at the core of the economy of the United States, and anything that disrupted it had potentially revolutionary implications.

Fugitives also rethought the most important concept within abolitionist theory in the US from the 1830s: the idea of immediate emancipation. The original idea of immediate emancipation, in part, came from the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who argued that abolitionists needed a moral revolution in the US; they needed to convince people of the evils of slavery; and once that happened, the Millennium would come; and slavery had to end not gradually over time, but all of a sudden, and there should be no compensation for slave-holders as there had been in the case of the British Empire. What fugitives and Vigilance Committees brought to this was that they didn’t disagree with the idea of the need for immediate, uncompensated emancipation or even some kind of moral or social revolution. But what they argued was that running away was also a form of immediate, uncompensated emancipation. And what was significant was that through articulating this alternative, or complementary idea of immediate emancipation, fugitives and activists working with Vigilance Committees convinced the abolitionist movement that fugitive aid was necessary to the abolition. Many abolitionists believed that the work of convincing the American public of the evils of slavery was primary, and that assisting fugitives only helped one enslaved person at a time and was thus in some ways a gradualist tactic without revolutionary implications. So, they said, “if you do it, it’s fine, but it’s a sideshow; it’s not the main work of the abolitionist movement”. Now, the Vigilance Committees basically said, “no, this has to be done alongside the other work and might even be more important”, and they convinced a lot of abolitionists on this. By the 1840s, major anti-slavery societies commended the work of Vigilance Committees, they funded them, and their leadership became part of the Committees. Fugitives of course entered the movement as its main speakers and agitators and activists. And so they did transform the tactics of the movement in articulating this other idea of immediate emancipation. One other thing that I want to rigorously emphasize is that fugitives themselves were thinking about the implications of this. So it’s more than just us historians looking at past acts of fugitivity, seeing something with revolutionary implications that contemporaries did not see. I’m, in fact, not rethinking but re-articulating what fugitives themselves thought about their own practice.


MC: How would you describe the kind of freedom that fugitives enjoyed after having successfully escaped?

JO: In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois noted that the abolition of slavery was not an end in itself but a means for further progress. And in some ways, on an individual scale, fugitives and formerly enslaved people understood that freedom from slavery was only the starting point. It freed them from thinking about how to free themselves, permitting them to think about other things: how to live fulfilling liberated lives, how to free others, and how to further expand the scope of human liberation. And it is true that in most places that fugitives went, whether it was Canada or the British Isles or Haiti, freedom was very difficult. In places like Canada or the US, they still faced discrimination and restrictions on voting rights. And so, freedom was not that free, if you will, but it was a starting point. Because of this, formerly enslaved people and self-liberated people did really get creative, in expanding ideas about what freedom should mean – not just freedom from slavery, but freedom from prisons, from patriarchy, from illiteracy, from landlessness, and much else.


MC: How is the craft of the historian impacted when they have to deal with a movement which was partly secret and whose members had to circumvent and protect themselves from spies and informants by concealing information. What were the methodological challenges that you had to overcome while researching for this book?

JO: It is true that, in face of state repression, a number of Vigilance Committee activists destroyed the records of their activities, which included many interviews with fugitives. But even so, a number of those were left over. And as I mentioned, I have almost 2,000 instances of such interviews. There is a deep amount of pessimism when it comes to writing the history of slavery, and rightly so, because you have an archive created by the masterclass, in which the subjectivity of enslaved people, and especially women, is almost completely erased or obliterated. But when studying abolition, as opposed to studying the history of slavery, one has to take a slightly different approach, because the archive is not an archive that is created by and for the slave-owning class. Social movements do create new kinds of knowledge, or at least try to create new kinds of knowledge, and they always bring new kinds of voices into the forefront. And they also develop new ways of thinking about the world. One thing that I do in my work is in fact take that very, very seriously. In the case of the abolitionist movement, there is no dearth of information. What I do in my work is I take the abolitionist archive seriously; I go through all of it, or as much of it as I can – not just what the Vigilance Committees archived – and I trace what different activists were writing and doing in other spaces as well, because that too had implications for vigilance work. Because the abolitionist movement was very small, it demanded of its activists not just to do practical work, fundraising, helping fugitives, but they also had to be thinkers and speakers and writers – all of them had to be organic intellectuals. And because of that, vigilance activists wrote and wrote and wrote, bringing their ideas learned from Vigilance Committees to other realms of thought and practice.


MC: In the book, you show how many participants in the movement saw slavery, racism, capitalism, and the patriarchy as mutually supporting forms of domination and exploitation, and were therefore convinced that the revolution should be able to overthrow all of these forms of oppression. How and where do you see the legacy of these anti-slavery struggles and of the Vigilance Committees more particularly in today’s struggles?

JO: This legacy is in a lot of places, and in some ways too many to enumerate, but abolitionists used to say, and I like to repeat this, “all oppressions under the sun are bound together”. What they meant is that all the oppressions under the sun have to be fought against together, not “after the revolution” but in order for there to be a revolution. In the Vigilance Committees, membership was so motley and diverse, which meant that the debates they had were equally motley and diverse. Helping fugitives was not a kind of single-issue activism. My investigation of Vigilance Committees shows that, in the process of doing the very hard work of helping fugitives, women abolitionists debated their male counterparts, Black abolitionists debated white abolitionists, political abolitionists debated those who were against voting.

I think female fugitives were the most thorough and sophisticated in understanding the ways that racism intersected or co-constituted gendered oppression. And they were also the most articulate in understanding the ways that what we would today call “social reproduction” was essential to the maintenance and sustenance of the slave economy. Women fugitives very often saw their resistance as a withdrawal of their physical reproduction of children and of their powers of production as labourers making commodities; but also of their social reproduction, that is, reproducing, caring for, and sustaining the masters’ household in addition to the household and lives of enslaved workers. These are powerful intellectual tools for feminists then and now.

I think equally significant that fugitives and the abolitionists who were most active in assisting them were also in some cases prison activists. They were critical of American carceral systems and even called for the abolition of policing and prisons. I document a number of examples of that. And some Vigilance Committee activists worked as teachers in prisons, helping rehabilitate prisoners after their incarceration. They realized that forms of policing and forms of imprisonment were constitutive to the way that slavery worked, and that the prison was just another form of unfreedom. This is one of the most inspiring and important legacies, and one that’s very little known. A lesson that we can learn from this is that prison abolition is not something that has cropped up from the 1970s onwards but, in fact, has a much longer anti-slavery history.


MC: What are your future projects? I’m curious if you’re examining other aspects of the abolitionist movement, or if you have turned to a different topic?

JO: Well, in some ways, I’m writing a sequel to this book. It’s about what I call the “Abolitionist Tradition”, particularly the ways that abolitionist ideas were commemorated within the Pan-African movement of the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. What I’ve been finding in my research is that numerous intellectuals and later social movements in the Caribbean and West Africa, as well as in the United States, were taking inspiration from abolitionists, trying to rewrite abolitionist history. What I contend is that, in fact, abolitionist ideas, tactics, and histories became a central reference point and source of inspiration for the movements that eventually led to the decolonization of Africa and the Caribbean. You see references to abolitionism at the Pan-African Congresses, within the Garvey Movement, in insurrections against colonial rule in Africa, as well as many other places. So, in some ways, decolonization is the continuation of the abolitionist tradition. That is what I’m exploring right now, a different kind of movement archive with a new kind of emancipatory knowledge.



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