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A Slave Speaks Out in Bridgwater

Whilst British involvement had ceased, slavery in the southern states continued.  Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland and taken from his mother whilst young.  He had several masters, some whipped him but one taught him to read and write.  Eventually he escaped, and disguised as a free-black sailor, reached New York.  The publication of his life story brought him fame.  He became a leading abolitionist and advisor to Abraham Lincoln, who encouraged him to tour and tell his story.

His travels brought him to Somerset where he delivered a lecture in Bridgwater.  On August 31, 1846, he told how in the southern slave states, he was still considered a runaway slave; how everything he did was dictated by his owners; how three million black slaves were denied the right of marriage; how there were 71 crimes for which blacks would be executed, but only one for whites; how slaves were branded with hot irons; how runaways were nailed to the wall by their ears.  He then appealed to his audience to do everything in their power to hasten the abolition of slavery.  The result of this was yet another petition, this time from the townsfolk of Bridgwater, Somerset to the people of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, one of the free states where slavery had already been abolished.  An exchange of cordial letters followed, the first of which was signed by no fewer than 1200 Bridgwater residents, with mutual admiration being expressed at great length, and Massachusetts explaining how slavery was not practised in that state.  The exchanges were simply gestures which no doubt left the people of Bridgwater, Somerset feeling much better about themselves and the people of Massachusetts feeling frustrated at their namesake’s lack of understanding

William Jolley Nicholls

Some wrote letters, others took more positive action in the battle against slavery.  In Bridgwater’s Bristol Road cemetery is the grave of William Jolley Nicholls.  On his tombstone is engraved “Fought in the American Civil War for the abolition of slavery”.  Aged 79 when he died, he was wounded in the civil war and took part in the Battle of Mobile Bay.  Sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.

Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans

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