William Lloyd Garrison—when I first saw that name on a headstone in the Forest Hills Cemetery near Boston last year, it struck only a small note of recognition. But this past June, I again visited the area and once more stood before the two-tiered but simple monument. This time, though, it was with a new understanding of who this remarkable person was: the 19th-century abolitionist who helped pave the way for emancipation—not, however, without encountering strident opposition.
We tend to view the pre-Civil War North as sympathetic to abolition. But racism ran strong in the northern states. Once in the mid-1830’s, in fact, Garrison was almost killed amid a scene of mob violence at the hands of a Boston crowd intent upon preventing him from addressing a group of women abolitionists. His courage in facing virulent hatred of this kind, coupled with a deep faith in the God of justice, sustained him throughout similarly difficult challenges.
My winter’s reading of a fine biography by Henry Mayer, All on Fire (1998), led to a kind of mini-pilgrimage during my June visit to other sites connected with Garrison’s life. Among them was the Park Street Church near the Boston Common, where he delivered a speech that included his initial rallying cry: “Since the cause of emancipation must...meet with much unhallowed opposition, why delay the work?” Nothing did. He was only in his early 20’s when he uttered those words in 1829. Three years later, he spoke at the nearby African American Meeting House, a gathering place for the city’s small but active black community—another pilgrimage site I visited. There he assured his hearers that “the mighty power” of the abolitionist cause would prevail. That it did was in no small part due not only to his travels and organizing abilities, but also to the small but potent newspaper he founded, The Liberator, much of which he himself wrote. Mostly self-educated, he had fortuitously learned printing skills during an impoverished childhood in Newburyport, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice. That small seafaring town north of Boston was also part of my pilgrimage; a statue of Garrison stands in the small park opposite the courthouse.
I also passed by the home in which he spent his final years, Rockledge. Though on the list of national historic landmarks, it was not, alas, open to the public. More fortunate, though, was my visit to the large neoclassical church on Eliot Square in Roxbury, on Boston’s outskirts. It was from here that Garrison was buried in 1879. The doors were locked, and at first the African American workman painting the exterior said he could not allow me in. But he relented and, opening the back entrance, permitted me in for a quarter of an hour. Light streamed through the rows of tall, clear glass windows on either side, illuminating the wooden box pews, unchanged since the early 1800’s.
A description of the funeral based on contemporary accounts is one of the most moving sections of the biography, and once inside I could visualize the event. Packed with both white and black people, the congregation “rose spontaneously to its feet in tribute” as the casket was borne in. A quartet sang his favorite hymns, and his friend from childhood—the poet John Greenleaf Whittier—though too ill to attend, sent a poem to be read aloud. After a final viewing pallbearers, both black and white, carried the casket from the church, and the funeral cortege made its way down through Roxbury to the cemetery. How fitting Garrison would find it, that the church’s present congregation is now largely made up of people of color.
On top of the headstone of his grave, previous visitors had left a scattering of pebbles as a sign of homage. Not to have left one of my own on this second, better-informed visit would have been unthinkable.