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Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Several New Acquisitions: Movements for Racial Justice

The current Riesenfeld Center exhibit, "Law and the Struggle for Racial Justice," focuses on collection items that highlight Black Americans' struggle for rights and equality in relation to the law, through the lens of historical legislation, cases, and movements which cast light on obstacles and on key moments of progress. Beyond the exhibit, the center also has an active, growing collection of material related to movements for Black American legal rights, several items of which are below. 

The earliest item in our current exhibit is an 1804 address by Quaker abolitionist Matthew Franklin to the free Black community of Philadelphia. The abolitionist movement had its origins somewhat earlier in the colonies, though largely still in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) was a prominent early figure, a Huguenot refugee from France who became a Quaker in England and adhered deeply to the Quaker belief that each human being was equal before one another and God. His writings include Some Historical Account of Guinea (1771), which details the immorality of the slave trade. In the same volume are texts by the noted English abolitionist and friend of Benezet, Granville Sharp. An earlier post has more on Sharp, a book of his at the Center, and the Somersett case. Another anti-slavery item in the collection is particularly rare, a recently-acquired circa-1850s broadside petition to Congress. It argues that the Constitution forbids slavery and urges Congress to secure the right of habeas corpus, and thus of liberty, for each person in the country. The item is one of only two recorded copies in libraries.    

Two other recently-acquired pieces relate to 20th-century civil rights. The first adds to a current exhibit item on the Trenton Six, a case that drew national headlines. Six young Black men were tried for the murder of an elderly shopkeeper in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1948, despite coerced confessions and a lack of access to counsel. The new pamphlet describes problems with witness statements and the defendants' strong alibis in the case. Four of the six defendants were acquitted and the case threw national light on due process violations in criminal cases for Black defendants. The other is an earlier issue of W. E. B. DeBois's The Crisis, the flagship magazine of the NAACP. In the issue, from 1931, are featured articles by early leaders in the NAACP including Charles W. Chesnutt and Mary White Ovington; and Robert E. Jones, one of the first bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church. 

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections


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