“I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.” New-York Historical Society.
The antebellum period is defined as the time between the formation of the U.S. government and the outbreak of the American Civil War.
But Black people did not quietly accept their enslavement. They actively fought to resist and dismantle the system. Black women were an integral force in the formal and informal opposition to slavery that gained steam in the antebellum period, despite being doubly discounted by people in power because of their race and sex. Black women in Salem, Massachusetts, created the first female anti-slavery society in the United States. Ex-slave abolitionist activists like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs widely shared their personal experiences of slavery in the North and South, forcing the white American public to confront the daily horrors perpetrated in a country that espoused the ideals of freedom and justice. Harriet Robinson Scott took her fight for emancipation to the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping to force a permanent change in U.S. laws and legislation. And every day, enslaved women across the country actively resisted their oppression, including limiting their ability to have children and taking their own freedom by leaving their enslavers forever.
In states that outlawed the practice of slavery, systemic racism and segregationist practices prevented Black people from achieving full equality with their white peers. Black women fought hard to dismantle these systems across the country, from fighting streetcar segregation in New York City to challenging unfair inheritance practices in Oregon. In Missouri, free Black people were required to apply for a special license to live in the state. Free Black women did not hesitate to assert their right to live and work there, even in the face of nearly insurmountable opposition.
White women in the northern and southern regions of the country also took an active role in the ongoing debate over slavery. The Cult of Domesticity that gained popularity in middle- and upper-class white society in the antebellum period severely limited the ways that white women could engage in public discourse. But slavery was considered as much a moral issue as an economic or political one, and morality was an area in which women were allowed a voice. This meant white women could engage in the debate over slavery publicly, as long as they stuck to moral arguments and channels deemed appropriate for women. Pro- and anti-slavery activist women wrote literature to educate young children about the issue, leveraging their socially prescribed role as educators of the next generation. Writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Maria Childs wrote highly romanticized accounts of slavery and abolitionist actions, taking advantage of the fairly new opportunity for women to pursue careers as novelists. White women all over the country used their domestic skills, such as sewing, preserving, baking, and crafting, to produce thousands of items sold at abolitionist fairs, which funded political anti-slavery campaigns led by men. But stepping outside the bounds of what society deemed appropriate behavior could have dire consequences.