Radical Abolitionist Visited Niagara Falls in 1852
At the mention of the names of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Garret Smith or Maria Child, at least a few people would recognize them as participants in the abolitionist movement. If you say the name of Abby Kelley today, you will get a blank look from even those acquainted with 19th century history. Abby Kelley was born into a Quaker farm family near Worcester, Massachusetts in 1811. Abby was well educated for a farm girl at that time and eventually became a schoolteacher in Lynn, Massachusetts in the 1830s. It was there that she first heard William Lloyd Garrison speak on the issue of anti-slavery. She was so moved by his speech she joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Lynn. She was later expelled from the Friends’ Society not for her anti-slavery beliefs, but because she insisted in participating in abolitionist activities, particularly public speaking.
Throughout the late 1830s Abby Kelley was an outspoken critic of the slave system in the United States. She traveled extensively throughout the Northeast speaking on behalf of the American Anti-Slavery Society while collecting signatures and funds, organizing bazaars, and training new recruits to the cause. In 1838, at a convention in Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, a pro-slavery mob attacked the delegates and burned the hall to the ground to protest not only the anti-slavery movement, but also blacks’ and women’s participation in what was viewed at that time as a white man’s realm - politics.
As time went on, Kelley’s stance became more and more radical. She encountered mobs who jeered her as a “Jezebel” pelted her with “unsavory eggs, [and] the contents of stables and outhouses.” She proudly proclaimed that she gladly endured these attacks for the sake of the slaves who endured much more at the hands of their masters. At the American Anti-Slavery Society Convention in 1840, Abby was nominated for a position on the Business Committee. No woman had held office in the Society before and the male leaders demanded that she withdraw her nomination. When she refused, 300 male members resigned in protest and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The abolitionist movement was fractured and Abby Kelley was blamed for it.
Abby spent 1842 and 1843 traveling along the “physic highway” of the Erie Canal, ending in Buffalo, undoubtedly lecturing in Lockport and Niagara Falls as well. Ten years later, this time accompanied by her husband, she made a return trip to organize anti-slavery meetings in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
In 1845 Abby Kelley married fellow radical abolitionist, Stephen S. Foster (not the songwriter), and made their home in Worcester, Massachusetts. A daughter was born in 1847. Despite increasing health problems, Abby continued to lecture in the Northeast. She and Garrison were increasingly at odds over the fledging Republican Party. Garrisonites aligned themselves with the new party, while the Kelley-Fosterites refused to associate with any organization that cooperated with a slaveholding federal government.
Ill health plagued Abby throughout the 1860s. It was discovered she had a large tumor on her ovary. A risky operation was successful and she continued to do limited work for the American Anti-Slavery Society until the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 gave former male slaves the right to vote. At that time the Society was dissolved. She devoted the rest of her life to the struggle for women’s suffrage. She passed away in 1887 at the age of seventy-six.
Douglas Farley, Director
Ann Marie Linnabery
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094