Q&A with Author Richard J.M. Blackett

March 27, 2023

Join the Gilder Lehrman Center on Thursday, May 4th  for an in-person book talk featuring GLC Director David Blight in conversation with Richard J.M. Blackett (Andrew Jackson Professor of History emeritus at Vanderbilt University) about Professor Blackett’s new book: Samuel Ringgold Ward: A Life of Struggle.

This volume is the first book in Yale’s new Black Lives series.

To learn more, read on! Professor Blackett sat down with Yale University Press to discuss this engaging new biography.

Q: Compared to some of his contemporaries, including Frederick Douglass, Samuel Ringgold Ward is not as well-known. What do we lose when we overlook his contributions to the abolitionist movement?

A: We may know little about Ward compared to some of his contemporaries, but they knew who he was and what he brought to the movement to end slavery and racial discrimination. They understood his drive, his energy, his devotion to the cause, the ways he brought people together and, unfortunately, sometimes repelled them. A wider appreciation of the role played by antebellum Black leaders is critical to an understanding of the many ways they pushed the United States to live up to its vaunted principles of equality for all and the ways their appeals to the better natures of the country were resisted and thwarted.

Q: What made Ward brilliant, and what made him unique among his peers?

A: Everyone commented on his wit, which some found much too biting, and his stunning eloquence that brought audiences to their feet, aware that he was a unique talent. Observers rarely missed the opportunity to comment on his color, his size, his height, and his eloquence. While Ward was a respecter of authority, he strongly believed that it had to be grounded in principles of equality and the Christian commitment to do good to others.

Q: How did Ward’s views differ from the popular abolitionist sentiments of the time? What did he advocate for that others did not?

A: Abolitionists differed over the best approach to abolition. Some called for abstaining from all political involvement, believing that the system was irretrievably corrupted by a Constitution partial to slavery. Others thought change would come through engagement in the political process. Ward was partial to the latter but argued that it required the formation of a new political party, one that was uncompromisingly opposed to slavery. He avidly believed that slavery could only end and, with it, racial discrimination, if men and women of good will became involved politically, not through either political party, which were both beholden to slavery, but through a new party free of any trace of association with slavery. Hence his leading role in the Liberty Party. He also believed that true Christians should sever association with churches tainted through their connections to slavery.

Q: In Upstate New York, Ward was the pastor for a predominantly white congregation. How integrated were communities in the Northeast in that time period?

A: Ward was the pastor of two predominantly white congregations in Upstate New York. It was not a first in US history, but it was the only instance we know of in the 19th century. These were not integrated communities in the modern sense because there were so few Blacks in either town, but these were communities in which Blacks found relative acceptance. Note that the Ward family were the only Black members of his first church although all the evidence suggests there were some other Black residents in the town. Many in the small Black communities of Upstate New York were barred from voting, but they were, in many other ways, free to build their own community institutions, the most significant of which was the church, which became one of the major engines driving the struggle for equality.

Q: Ward left America when he was in his early 30’s, never to return. What went into his decision and how common was that for successful Black men of that era?

A: Ward left the US in 1851 for Canada, concerned that the government would come after him for his involvement in the rescue of the fugitive slave Gerry. A fugitive slave helping to rescue a fugitive slave! He chose to settle in Jamaica at the end of his mission to Britain on behalf of fugitive slaves who had moved to Canada; he had been offered land there. Ward had always longed for his own piece of land, a symbol, as it were, of self-sufficiency. He was the only abolitionist to cut ties with the US permanently; Alexander Crummell spent a large part of his adult life in Liberia, but ultimately returned.

Q: Ward found success and acceptance in Canada and Europe. Did those places view free Blacks differently than did free states in antebellum America?

A: The answer is yes. Laws in Canada did not discriminate against free Blacks, although that did not mean there were no restrictions against them in schools, housing, etc. More significantly, Britain had abolished slavery in 1834. It was an example to which free Blacks and abolitionists appealed in their struggle to end slavery in the US. A monarchy had emancipated its slaves while a republican democracy continued to keep large numbers of its people enslaved.

Q: There are large gaps in Ward’s story—there are years, particularly the end of his life in Jamaica, about which we know very little. How did that impact your work as a biographer?

A: Years ago, I had planned to include Ward in a series of biographical studies of African Americans, but in the end decided not to include him because there were simply too many gaps in his life. I did manage to fill in some of those gaps in my research here, but much remained elusive. Ward is such an intriguing figure, a person of such talent and promise, that I decided the missing information about his life story was not large enough to silence his contributions to the struggle for equality. Hence the subtitle of the book: it was a struggle on multiple levels for both the subject and the historian!


R. J. M. Blackett is a historian of the abolitionist movement whose books include The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery and Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery. He is Andrew Jackson Professor of History emeritus at Vanderbilt University and lives in Nashville, TN.


Yale University Press’s new Black Lives series launches this spring with two titles: Samuel Ringgold Ward by R. J. M. Blackett (March) and Isaac Murphy by Katherine C. Mooney (May).

The Black Lives series produces authoritative biographies of individuals of African descent who profoundly shaped history and whose lives illuminate the breadth, diversity, and richness of Black experiences. It will include biographies of the famous: John Lewis and Desmond Tutu; the less well-known, such as the abolitionist Anna Murray Douglass and novelist Paule Marshall; and the fictional: Jim from Huckleberry Finn and Bigger Thomas from A Native Son. In all, it is a daring attempt to capture the complexity of the Black experience, to understand the changing meanings of Blackness over time, and to understand the history that has shaped the contours of Black life today.

The series is being advised by three distinguished scholars: David Blight, Sterling Professor of History at Yale (and author of an award-winning, best-selling biography of Frederick Douglas); Jacqueline Goldsby, Thomas E. Donnelly Professor of African American Studies and of English and Professor of American Studies at Yale; and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher, University Professor at Harvard University.