The plight of those freed from slavery by the American Civil War first came to the attention of the Ladies Negro Friend Society for Birmingham and the surrounding area in 1862. It called for contributions to be sent from Britain to provide aid. The scale of the need at that time was not well understood, but by 1864 it had become clear to the Society that there were severe shortages of shelter, clothing, hospitals, medical care and free employment for the hundreds of thousands of emancipated slaves who travelled northwards, leaving vast numbers destitute or dying.
At the 39th anniversary meeting of the Society in May 1864, the chair put forward a proposal from a member of the Erdington branch of the Society,
…that a ship should be freighted with stores and sent to the United States.
(40th annual report of the Birmingham Ladies Negro’s Friend Society, 1865, ref MS 3173/2/3)
which would, as Arthur Albright (1811–1900), leader of the National Freed Men’s Aid Union, later described at the 1867 Paris Anti-Slavery Conference, with reference to the cotton workers who suffered in the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865),
…pay back… those shiploads of corn and provisions sent from the United States to assist in feeding the pinched and patient artisans of Lancashire…
(Paper given by Arthur Albright, Anti-slavery Conference Report, Paris 1867, ref 326.4)
Supported by Birmingham’s Mayor, the proposal was approved and a group of the city’s male abolitionist campaigners established the Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association on 12th May 1864. According to Clare Midgley in her book ‘Women against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870’, it was to become one of the most important Freed Men’s Aid Associations in the country and worked closely with the Ladies Negro Friend Society, helped by the fact that a number of the members were related. The Association was chaired by Edward Gem, with Benjamin H. Cadbury and Charles Felton as secretary. Although it was a non-denominational group, many of its members were Quakers.
One of the first things the Association did was to arrange in October 1864, via the Birmingham MP, John Bright (1811 – 1889) and the US Minister for the United Kingdom, based in London, Charles Francis Adams (1807 – 1886), a guarantee from the Secretary of the United States Treasury, William P. Fessenden (1806 – 1869), that any goods and clothing could be imported into the United States free of all customs duties.
However, having found that the responsibilities and cost involved with the chartering of a ship would be too high to be feasible, the Association managed to obtain the agreement of the steamship companies in Liverpool to grant them free freight of any items donated to them.
At the same time, the Association set about making the public more aware of their campaign by issuing numerous circulars which explained what they set out to do and asking for donations of either goods or money. These circulars included first-hand accounts of the situation of the freed slaves provided by relief workers in the USA, such as this one sent by an agent of the Society of Friends, E. Beard from Vicksberg, Mississippi, in January 1864:
The majority of these people are poorly housed or not sheltered at all from the cold rains and winds… and several in a past week have been frozen to death, and others have been so chilled they are not likely to last long. The few clothes they could carry, in their hurried march from the plantations, …should be thrown aside as entirely useless.
There are many hundreds of women and children who are barefoot, with nothing but cotton clothes, which have been worn for months, and from their extreme poverty are the victims of fell disease…
(Birmingham Freed Men’s Aid Association minute book, MS 3338/1)
The circulars also included lists of items needed, as suggested by the relief workers. For example, Rev. Horace James on Roanoke Island in North Carolina appealed for various tools and agricultural equipment such as saws, crowbars, carpenters tools, seeds, haberdashery goods, kettles and fishing tackle so that the freed men could work for themselves and,
…quantities of clothing of all descriptions, particularly for women and children, with shoes, primers, reading and arithmetic books, slates, pencils and stationery of all sorts.
(Birmingham Freed Men’s Aid Association minute book, MS 3338/1)
Articles were published in local newspapers and journals, and public meetings were arranged to which they invited speakers from the US, such as Levi Coffin, President of the Underground Railroad (you can read more about his visit in this blog post) and a special delegation from the US National Freedmen’s Relief Association in January 1865.
Such was the success of the publicity that donations of money, clothes and manufactured goods were soon coming in from Birmingham and the Midlands and across the country. Indeed, the London Freedmen’s Aid Society decided to send all its contributions via the Birmingham Association. Items from local businesses included: medical and sanitary chemicals from Albright & Wilson; cocoa from Cadbury’s; citric acid ‘for fever drink’ from the chemist, Edmund Sturge; glass, chemicals and 1200 tumblers from Chance Bros & Co; saddlery from William Middlemore Saddles; a ‘letter weigher’ from W. & W.H. Avery, various types of pumps from Tangye Brothers & Price; pottery from Josiah Wedgwood & Sons. Other items included seeds, pens, stationery, shovels, cut nails, frying pans, fish hooks, ironmongery, books, shawls, linen, calico and other fabrics, second hand and new clothes, shoes and haberdashery.
To help with the shortages of clothing, the Association initiated a scheme whereby they offered £5 to any lady or group of ladies who would match it with another £5 to purchase fabric and make it into clothes. One of the groups who took up this initiative was the Birmingham Ladies Negro Friend Society who reported in 1865 that they had contributed more than £150 worth of clothes in the previous year (40th annual report of the Birmingham Ladies Negro’s Friend Society, 1865, ref MS 3173/2/3).
The first shipment of goods, consisting of 37 packages with an estimated value of £489, sailed from Liverpool on the Edinburgh on 15th November 1864. Another shipment was sent the next week, with others following every one or two weeks. At the Paris Conference on Anti-slavery in 1867, Arthur Albright estimated that about £20, 000 of goods and clothing had been forwarded by the Birmingham Freedmen’s Aid Association (Anti-slavery Conference Report, Paris 1867, ref 326.4), and across Britain as a whole, it is estimated that a total of £120,000 was raised between 1863 and 1868 (Midgley ‘Women against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870’) to help the emancipated slaves.
Eleanor, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)