Friday, 10 March 2017

102 Jessie Donaldson

Campaigners’s key role in helping to free U.S. slaves

102 Jessie Donaldson
The 1853 slave narrative by Solomon Northup “Twelve Years a Slave”, and the harrowing film based on his experiences, give some idea of what slavery in the southern states of America could entail, as do the television adaptations of Alex Haley’s book “Roots”.  The recent decision to re-name Bristol’s Colston Hall rather than perpetuate the name of a slave owner is a reminder that Britain (and not just Liverpool) benefited indirectly from the transatlantic slave trade.  Streets in Swansea are named after geologist Henry de la Beche, who inherited a sugar plantation and slaves in Jamaica, while his friend Lewis Weston Dillwyn was the son of an opponent of the slave trade.
The film ‘Amazing Grace’ (not to be confused with Mal Pope’s musical concerning the 1904-05 Welsh Revival) focused on the work of William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, which paved the way to abolishing slavery itself.  Yet many are unaware that a woman from Swansea was active in assisting runaway slaves.
The British Anti-slavery Society was formed in 1823, involving both Wilberforce and Clarkson, and that same year the Society met in Swansea’s town hall, which then stood in front of the castle.  The following July, during his tour of Wales, Thomas Clarkson himself visited Swansea, where the anti-slavery campaign was prominent in Quaker and Unitarian circles.  Later the former slaves Ellen and William Craft escaped to Britain, and in October 1863 gave a public lecture entitled “The Life of the Fugitive Slave” at Mount Pleasant Chapel in Swansea.  This was probably arranged after a letter of introduction from Jessie Donaldson, a Swansea woman then living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Jessie Donaldson was born in 1799 at Dynevor Place (near Mount Pleasant Chapel), the daughter of a Unitarian and an abolitionist.  In her mid-twenties she opened a school for young ladies and gentlemen in 32 Wind Street.  She was well informed about slavery, for her aunt had emigrated to Cincinatti, and used her home beside the Ohio river as one of the ‘safe houses’, sheltering escaping slaves on their journey north to freedom.  To the south was slave-owning Kentucky, while to the north lay Cincinatti - and eventual freedom; British North America (present-day Canada), where slavery was outlawed, was the usual destination for escaped slaves.  Merely reaching the northern states was no guarantee of safety, for there were large financial inducements to return slaves to the south.  What was called the “Underground Railroad” for escaped slaves consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, safe houses and personal assistance from sympathisers.  Certain negro spirituals like ‘Down by the river’ and ‘Steal away’ could contain messages and pointers, amid the imagery of crossing the river Jordan into the heavenly kingdom, to guide fugitives across the Ohio river.
Jessie’s widowed cousin, Francis Donaldson, returned from America, and they married in 1840, settling at 9 Grove Place.  But sixteen years later, when Jessie was aged 57, they joined relatives in Cincinatti, where their new home also became one of the ‘safe houses’, though the Donaldsons risked a fine of up to 1,000 dollars or six months in prison for aiding fugitive slaves.  They knew Cincinatti-born Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
After the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in America in 1865, Jessie Donaldson returned to Swansea, where she died aged 90 at Ael-y-bryn in Sketty.  Her 1889 obituary in The Cambrian states: “The house where she and her husband lived was on the banks of the Ohio, opposite to the slave-owning state of Kentucky, and at times it was used by fugitives as one of the stations of what was termed the Underground Railroad by which they travelled to the free land of Canada.” 
The research by Jen Wilson (of Women in Jazz) into the life of Jessie Donaldson shows Swansea can be proud of this courageous campaigner for freedom.                                     

No comments:

Post a Comment