Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

150: Wilson Armistead of Leeds (1819-1868)

This contribution is based on an article written by Joe Williams.

Making snuff and other products from slave-produced tobacco led the owner of a new house in Leeds to name it Virginia Cottage in 1828. In 1844 it became the home of Wilson Armistead, who owned a mustard factory. A Quaker, Armistead was deeply concerned with slavery in America and wrote pamphlets and books, helped finance the monthly Anti-Slavery Advocate, and hosted visiting African Americans. He had visited the U.S.A. He led the Leeds Anti-Slavery Society (founded 1853).

His A Tribute for the Negro of 1848 had 560 pages. He provided accommodation and audiences for fugitive slaves, as in March 1851 when the British census recorded Ellen and William Craft were his guests. Armistead declared them to be ‘fugitives from America, the land of their nativity’, which was widely reported in the British press. The Crafts had reached England in late 1850. They spoke at the Woodhouse Mechanics’ Institute in Leeds: ‘very interesting and intelligent persons’ noted the press.

Armistead provided platforms for other African American speakers, and author-activist William Wells Brown commented ‘Few English gentlemen have done more to hasten the day of the slave’s liberation than Wilson Armistead’. In November 1853 Armistead and the mayor of Leeds were present when William G. Allen told the audience he had ‘not yet met with any of that feeling which exists in America’. Armistead and his Anti-Slavery Society had commissioned three lectures from Allen and both the Leeds Mercury and Leeds Times of 3 December 1853 reported them.

White American abolitionists appeared in Leeds (publisher William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) and all were struck that Armistead’s society included females: and had ‘Am I not a woman and a sister?’ as well as the traditional ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ slogan. Armistead’s 1848 Tribute had also taken a radical stance, promoting awareness of the intellectual and other creditable capacities of Africans (seen today as pious paternalism, ironically). He observed that science and literature had started in Africa and had been disseminated among the Greeks and Romans. ‘Prejudice and misinformation have, for a long series of years, been fostered with unremitting assiduity by those interested in upholding the slave system’ he had written in the preface.

Sarah Parker Remond, who spoke to British audiences of slavery and of women’s rights, was associated with Armistead in the late 1850s (she qualified as a doctor in Italy), and so was Martin Delany who wanted black Americans to settle in Africa. The majestic orator Frederick Douglass was another guest. Their public talks provided new perspectives and reduced misinformation circulating among the British.

The slavery society of the U.S.A. ended with the Civil War. The liberated men, women and children were to receive aid from sympathisers who formed Freedmen’s Aid groups, which is what Armistead and his associates in Leeds did. The injured and oppressed – people who fell into the Quaker definition of ‘sufferings’ – continued to be aided by Britons stimulated by Armistead and his black associates.

And his hefty writings, notably the 1848 collection of 150 biographies, are still studied today. Misrepresentation and misinformation are countered with eloquent arguments, intelligent ideas, dignity, and the achievements and humanity of African people just as Wilson Armistead detailed in 1848.

Armistead died in Leeds on 18 February 1868, in the house that had been financed by slave labour. His estate and business were inherited by his son Joseph John Armistead, who restored the mustard enterprise from the neglect caused by his philanthropic father.

A Tribute for the Negro is available on line at docsouth.unc.edu/neh/Armistead.

* Joe Williams is a member of the Diasporian Stories Research Group in Leeds and founder of Heritage Corner (see heritagecornerleeds.wix.com/heritage-corner).

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