The digitized newspapers in the British Library reveal how mid-nineteenth century British society viewed visiting African Americans, and can also reveal strategies of ‘performative’ resistance from African Americans, writes Hannah-Rose Murray, Eccles Centre Postgraduate Travel Award recipient 2015.
My five visits to the British Library were instrumental to my PhD thesis. Currently, I am examining the influence and legacy of African Americans on British society and the myriad ways they fought British racism from 1830-1895. African Americans engaged in a strategy I term ‘adaptive resistance’, a multi-pronged oppositional strategy enacted via a medium of performance, by which African Americans challenged racial and gender stereotypes and won support for abolition. This resistance strategy employed both
assimilation and dissonance as African Americans worked to secure their political agenda. They incorporated mimicry, minstrelsy, anglophilia, and exhibitions of their scars into their performances to create an aspect of the familiar to appeal to British audiences. To do this, black activists used language, images and actions as their weapons. Black activists also practiced deliberate dissent against typical Victorian norms, from rejecting racism and racial science, asserting black masculinity and refusing to downplay the violence of slavery. They could use both in the same lecture, walking a tense tightrope between the two, negotiating and pushing the boundaries of both to fight traditional racial stereotypes.
As explained in my application for this award, the main bulk of my sources are digitized newspapers from the British Library. They can reveal so much about British society in the mid nineteenth century but also how people viewed these visiting African Americans. The reports of their speeches are an important medium in which we can reveal hidden voices from the archive, and allow these men and women to speak for themselves.
I have been struggling to complete a chapter for my thesis which centers around Josiah Henson. In 1877, Henson visited Britain and was invited to meet Queen Victoria in Windsor Palace – he was believed to be the inspiration for the character of ‘Uncle Tom’ in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and received nation-wide fame in Britain as a result. To ensure the success of his visit, Henson capitalized on this association and received over two thousand invitations to speak. He was a powerful speaker, and newspaper correspondents waxed lyrical about his impressive stage presence. One reported that Henson, “like a skillful player upon a harp, wrought upon their feelings”, sometimes “provoking them to laughter” and soon after “relating a touching incident moving them to tears.” Word of Henson’s arrival – and speaking ability – spread across the country: in a meeting in Sheffield, hundreds of people were turned away as there was not even standing room left to hear him speak; and his narrative sold tens of thousands of copies.
I wanted to learn more about Henson’s visit here and read several newspaper articles pertaining to his trip. I also perused his updated autobiography and a ‘Young People’s Edition’ of his narrative, written and illustrated especially for children. This is a fascinating book held by the Library, and as far as I can tell unique among visiting African Americans. Henson’s growing disillusionment with the epithet of ‘Uncle Tom’ and denial of the romanticisation of slavery in the British press illustrate his resistance to British racism. These volumes and newspaper articles are crucial to the completion of my chapter, which I can now write over the summer.
In terms of other work consulted, I transcribed some poetry about Frederick Douglass from Laura Wilkes’ In Memoriam to Frederick Douglass. Once my PhD is completed I will write an article/book about abolitionist poetry, and I have added these poems to my small collection of poetry I have found in Victorian newspapers. This is an understudied subject and would prove to be an enriching piece of work.
Furthermore, my supervisor Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier and I have begun to collaborate together on a future book project. This volume will be an anthology of narratives, pamphlets, speeches and letters published by African Americans and black Britons in the nineteenth century. Whilst we will include small works by Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson (two celebrities on the British stage) we want to include lesser-known works that will highlight the breadth of written work by black authors in the UK. I read Zilpha Elaw’s memoirs of her journey in Britain, as well as the narratives of William Jackson, Lewis Smith, John Lewis and the ‘Horrors of the Virginian Slave Trade’ by John Hawkins Simpson, who interviewed a black woman called Dinah about her experience as an enslaved person in Virginia. I also found an incredible broadsheet written by an African-American named John Coombs, with a very short narrative and poetry surrounding it. This was published in 1861 and is unlike anything I have seen before in the field of slave narratives. This – together with Dinah’s story – will form the centrepiece of our monograph.
I am indebted to the British Library for this award, as I would not have been able to finish my PhD without it. I am also grateful that I could use the collections to access material for a future book project that will bring forgotten stories to the light, as well as improving the chance of a steady career in the future.
 Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, Thursday 25 January 1877.
 Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, Saturday 3 February 1877.
Hannah-Rose Murray is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham.