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Antislavery Poetry from San Francisco

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The Pacific Appeal was the leading African American newspaper on the West Coast during the early 1860s.  A newly-published set of eight antislavery poems from the journal's inaugural 1862 volume captures the sense of expectancy within the African American community for the imminent end of US slavery.  These poems include the work of James Madison Bell, a San Francisco plasterer, brickmason, and poet.  Read more... 
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Poems

An 1883 volume of mixed evangelical and antislavery poems, by African American abolitionist Alfred Gibbs Campbell. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.


 

Alfred Gibbs Campbell (1826-1884), an African American industrialist and newspaper publisher, remains a little-known figure. He lived most of his life in Paterson, New Jersey, where he spent 35 years as a manager and later part-owner of the Ivanhoe Paper Mills, constructed in 1851.  The mill, with its ten-building complex, was recognized internationally as the leading paper manufacturer in the United States. In addition to his work at the mills, Campbell achieved significant early wealth from manufacture of patent medicines and perfumes. Apparently he used these monies in 1851-52 to finance publication of The Alarm Bell, a monthly reform newspaper in Newark, New Jersey he edited throughout its nine issue run. 

Campbell became a vice-president of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1857 and remained so into the early 1860s. Campbell was in full sympathy with Garrison’s call for disunion, for in 1849 he single-handedly presented a petition to the New Jersey state legislature calling for peaceful session from the Union on account of slavery. Eighteenth Annual Report, Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (Boston: 1850, 13) He expressed his antagonism towards slavery by refusing to vote in a country that tolerated the institution. Campbell was also a temperance activist and published at least a couple topical poems on this issue.

Campbell died on January 9, 1884, in Paterson. (New York Times, Jan. 11, 1884, 5)  The Ivanhoe mills, with which he was associated so many years, went into the first of a series of bankruptcies in 1886.  Historic American Engineering Record, no. NJ-10 (National Parks Service, 1983, 4).

This volume of Campbell’s collected verse contains 56 poems, of which 14 address antislavery themes. The majority of these collected pieces are Christian religious poems. Although it is not possible to date the earliest work with certainty, Campbell appears to have collected his work from the late 1840s until his final published poem, “New Year’s Musings” (119), in 1883. Poems is the only book Campbell is known to have published. 

His obituary describes Campbell as having “the most positive opinions on any subject in which he was interested.” On the basis of his poetry, Campbell’s evangelical faith was most central of these opinions. He left the Methodist church for the Congregational but, having become dissatisfied, requested to be dismissed. “It was decided by the authorities to whom the matter was referred that he could get out only in one of two ways – by dying or by expulsion. He said that he had done nothing meriting expulsion, and he was not ready to die; so the matter hung in abeyance for a long time, to the great annoyance of the church people.” (NYT)      

In his antislavery poetry, Campbell advocated repeatedly for outright rebellion against slavery. In “Warning”, written after the Christiana uprising, he speaks of a “Modern Moloch” whose “day of reckoning is at hand” (65-66), and foresees God striking down slave-owning oppressors. Originally published in the Paterson Guardian and then reprinted in The Liberator (December 9, 1859), his poem “Old John Brown” was singular among post-execution popular poetry for its ferocity and extravagant praise of Brown’s rebellion against state authority. Lines from the poem emphatically reject characterizations of Brown as a “traitor”. For discussion, see Lockard, “’Earth Feels the Time of Prophet-Song: John Brown and Public Poetry,” 77-78 in Taylor and Herrington, The Afterlife of John Brown (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). This same militant abolitionist spirit, intermixed with evangelical fervor, characterizes his antislavery poetry

The volume's topical antislavery poems are as listed, by page:    

12        “The Divine Mission”
45        “National Song”
65        “Warning. Suggested by the Christiana (Pa.) Treason Trials”
67        “The Doom of Slavery”
70        “A Virginian’s Appeal”
72        “Prayer of the Slaves”
75        “In Tyrannos”
78        “Liberty”
80        “Lines. Written July 4, 1855”
83        “July 4th, 1857”
85        “Old John Brown”
87        “A Battle-Cry”
89        “Waiting for Day”
93        “Victory”


 
- Joe Lockard