Frederick Douglass (c.1879)

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 and after a failed attempt to escape bondage he successfully fled north to freedom in 1838. Frederick married and became involved in the abolitionist movement in the United States. However, there were some elements who doubted his story. Frederick went on to publish his autobiography in 1845 as a means to tell his full story. This put him at an even greater risk of recapture and so he sailed to the British Isles.

Douglass became one of the most recognisable abolitionists. He spent three months touring Ireland in 1845, speaking in Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and Belfast. Douglass returned to Belfast in June 1846 and gave further talks in support of the abolition of the slave trade.

Fredrick Douglass’s visits to Belfast left a lasting impression on those who heard him speak. The Belfast Newsletter of the 29 September 1846 reported that a group of women in Belfast were inspired by his visit to set up an ‘Anti-Slavery Association’ in late 1845. Its purpose was to ‘render the situation of the slave more generally understood’ and to inspire others to stand with the abolitionist movement. The women reminded the public that the abolition of slavery in the British Empire had been brought about by ‘philanthropic labours’ but cautioned readers that it was under British law that many of the ancestors of these slaves had been snatched and sold into bondage in the first instance, and as such they have ‘a special claim on our sympathy’.

The Belfast Ladies Anti-Slavery Association were well versed on the laws of the United States and were deeply adverse to those which forbid free people of colour or slaves from preaching or learning to read and write. The Association invited people to contribute items to be sent and sold in America at Anti-Slavery bazaars. These bazaars were one way the abolitionist movement could raise much needed funds.

The article signs off with a list of those women from Belfast and beyond who were members of the new ‘Belfast Ladies Anti-Slavery Association’. Amongst them are a number who served on the Belfast Charitable Society Ladies Committee for the Poor House as well as members of the Society of Friends. Mary Ann McCracken appears amongst the committee members and she arguably was one of the foremost abolitionist in Belfast.

Writing to Dr Madden, the United Irishmen historian, in 1859 Mary Ann wrote about the earlier movement for abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire which was supported with enthusiasm by many in Belfast. She recalls that Thomas Russell was one of the number (alongside herself), who

… abstained from the use of slave labour produce until slavery in the West Indies was abolished, and at the dinner parties to which he was so often invited and when confectionary was so much used he would not taste anything with sugar in it . . .

I am both ashamed and sorry to think that Belfast has so far degenerated in regard to the Anti-Slavery cause.

In the same period Mary Ann wrote that America

. . . considered the land of the great, the brave, may more properly be styled the land of the tyrant and the Slave . . . Belfast, once so celebrated for its love of liberty is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre that there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates, for the good cause paying 2/6 yearly, not one man, tho’ several Quakers in Belfast, and none to distribute papers to American Emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89.

This is the prevailing image of Mary Ann McCracken, as a lone abolitionist, standing on the docks continuing to campaign for the abolition of slavery at the age of 88. Reflecting on the original article written by the Belfast Ladies Anti-Slavery Association, we can see Mary Ann’s influence in its tone and style of campaigning when it stressed

We feel especially anxious that emigrants be prepared, by a thorough acquaintance with the true nature of this [abolitionist] question, to withstand the corrupting exhalations from slavery that have filled even the Northern States with prejudices against the negro and his abolitionist friends. Let us if possible, enlist in this righteous cause the sympathies of childhood as well as age, of poor as well as the rich, and not relax our efforts,

Until immortal mind

Unshackled, walks abroad,

And chains no longer bind

The image of our God!

Until no captive one

Murmurs on land or wave;

And in his course, the sun

Looks down upon no slave.

The Belfast Charitable Society have established the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation to promote the life and works of this remarkable individual and her relevance and legacy in the 21st century. The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation formally launched in January 2021 with guest speaker Professor Olusoga who spoke on the ‘Legacies of Slavery’ (click here to view). On 18 November 2021 at 7pm the Foundation will host the Inaugural Annual Mary Ann McCracken Lecture, which will explore the experience of women in Afghanistan- featuring contributions from Sima and Sara, who both left the country to escape the Taliban and Bilal, an Afghan national who served as Cultural Advisor and Interpreter for British Forces in Afghanistan. For more information and to book please click here.