Antislavery poetry published in the 1862 inaugural volume of The Pacific Appeal, an African American newspaper in San Francisco. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
This selection of eight antislavery poems appeared in the inaugural volume of The Pacific Appeal, a short-lived African American newspaper that commenced publishing in San Francisco under that name in 1862. It was the successor of The Mirror of the Times, another African American newspaper established in the same city in 1855. The Appeal’s editor, Phillip A. Bell, an assistant to the first African American newspaper editor, Samuel Cornish, and who himself became known as one of the leading early African American journalists. The newspaper’s politics in this first volume were adamantly abolitionist and vigorously supported the war against slavery. The paper’s motto was “He who would be free, himself must strike the blow.” (Irvine Garland Penn, The Afro-American Press and its Editors, New York, Wiley & Co., 1891, 91) Later during a bitter split, Bell and others would accuse the publisher, Peter Anderson, of overlooking the slavery issue and becoming an accommodationist. (C. Peter Ripley, The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1859-1865, Durham, University of North Carolina Press, 1992, 185).
A majority of poems published in the pages of The Pacific Appeal during its first year were sentimental love poems. Antislavery poems were the only other type of poem that the newspaper published. Nearly all the antislavery poems appear to be the work of California writers.
Four poems published over the initials “J.M.B.” were by San Francisco poet James Madison Bell (1826-1902). Bell was an Ohio-born plasterer and brickmason, one who while living in Canada had housed and aided John Brown during his preparations for the Harpers Ferry raid. Bell emigrated to California in 1860 and was well-known in San Francisco’s African American community for his published writing and public readings. For a summary of Bell’s life and works, and review of his critical reception, see Robert L. Milde, “James Madison Bell,” 13-17 in Emmanuel Sampath Nelson [ed.], African American Authors, 1745-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook (New York, Greenwood Publishing, 2000).
As a group, these poems reflect the tenuousness, anticipation, and hopes prevalent in the African American community during a year when the outcome of the Civil War was very much in doubt. “The Passage to the Red Sea” by an anonymous poet employs a common trope of the Biblical exodus to describe the situation of African Americans at the verge of leaving the era of slavery. Three poems celebrate the end of slavery in the District of Columbia. Another pair of poems, one by Bell and the other by an unknown ‘Beniciano,’ addressed the status of ‘contrabands’ – fugitive slaves who crossed into Union lines – and demanded that they be given an opportunity to fight for freedom.
- Joe Lockard