After the fire: Abolitionist memory and the eclipse of antislavery from the Civil War to the First World War

Raymond James Krohn, Purdue University


Two interrelated analytical concerns structure this project. On the one hand, it investigates what stories post-Civil War abolitionist reminiscences tell about the pre-Civil War humanitarian campaign to immediately end the southern system of slavery. On the other hand, it evaluates how the postbellum present of elderly antislavery activists shaped and informed their conceptions and interpretations of the antebellum abolitionist past. An examination of the commemorative literature—biographical memoirs, autobiographies, and recollections—authored by six veteran antislavery agitators, and the utilization of a case-study approach in which writer and writing are closely scrutinized and contextualized, enables a careful documentation of abolitionist historical memory over time. And since the memorial publications that form the basis of this account intersected with turning-point moments in American race relations, the crucial historical problem, which completes the entire analytical apparatus, becomes: how did the changing status and condition of African Americans affect the different ways that white antislavery crusaders portrayed abolitionist history, people, and events from the late 1860s through the first decade of the 1900s?^ This study of what abolitionists memorial writers remembered and why therefore assays the faithfulness of white antislavery reformers to racial justice principles shortly and long after human enslavement's eradication. If indeed the most outspoken antebellum champions of equal black rights were much less vociferous in their advocacy as postbellum abolitionist commemorators and historians, it should then come as little surprise that the experiment in biracial democracy that momentarily took hold in the South during Reconstruction was neither resuscitated nor mourned by most northerners after its effective demise in 1877. And if white abolitionist-memoirists abandoned the cause of the former slaves—and this study demonstrates that they did beginning in the 1880s—then serious historiographic questions emerge about the nature and limitations of antislavery-oriented racial egalitarianism that scholars must confront and consider.^




Robert E. May, Purdue University.

Subject Area

African American Studies|American Studies|History, Black|History, United States

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