Document 7: Mary Sheldon, "Our Duty to the Oppressed," Composition Book, Mary Sheldon Papers, Record Group 30, Box 1, Oberlin College Archives.
The Oberlin Female Antislavery Society was founded in 1835, reflecting the evangelical commitment to radical egalitarianism and racial equality that the "Lane Rebels" brought with them to Oberlin. Mary Sheldon (1825-1887) was in her second year at Oberlin when she presented this address to the group. From a strongly abolitionist family, Sheldon took seriously her responsibilities as a female worker in the antislavery cause. Upon graduation from Oberlin in 1852, she served one year as principal of the Ladies Department at Austinburg, Ohio, before marrying James Vincent, an English clergyman, on November 10, 1853. Vincent had studied theology at Oberlin 1850-1853, leaving without a degree to lecture first for the Western Tract and Book Society and subsequently for the American Anti-Slavery Society. After spending a year in England soliciting support for the abolitionist cause, the young couple decided to emigrate to Kansas to support its antislavery struggle, but economic difficulties forced them to stop in Tabor, Iowa, This newly-founded settlement of Oberlin alumnae and other freethinkers was a busy station on the Underground Railroad. There Mary and James raised five sons and published The Nonconformist, a weekly anti-slavery journal devoted to the cause of emancipation. The Vincent household hosted a slave woman and child delivered by John Brown shortly before Harpers Ferry, Mary attending to the fugitives while her husband attended a meeting to raise funds for their continued flight. For Mary Sheldon's earlier compositions, see her essays on "Dueling," (see Document 5A) "Tight Lacing," (see Document 5B) and "Women and Politics," (see Document 5C) in this project.
Our Duty to the Oppressed
"Wo unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, and say; if we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets, wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets."[A]
As it was in the days of Christ, when he reproved the hypocritical Pharisees, so it is now. The Jews had their sacred books, in which were recorded the prophecies, with their fulfilment, nor could their inspiration be denied; they therefore contented themselves with building the tombs, and garnishing the sepulchers of the righteous, satisfying their consciences with the lullaby, "if we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets." Thus it is with us, we lament the wrongs our ancestors committed, in entailing upon our nation the burden and crime of Slavery, yet we content ourselves, with laudations of their good deeds and enterprise; and say "if we had had been among the early settlers of our nation, we would never have allowed a slave to set foot upon our shores; if we had been among the framers of the Constitution, slavery should not have received our sanction, but a withering rebuke; yet we ourselves are witnesses that we are their children, and glory in possessing traits of character similar to theirs."
Our fathers have applied the earnings of the slave, to their own personal aggrandizement. His unrequited toil has contributed to the erection of our national monuments; and thus have we become identified as partakers in this sin. Would we free ourselves from this imputation of hypocrisy? The question then arises how can this be done? I answer one way is, to endeavor to elevate those whom our oppression has degraded and imbruted, and aid them in attaining such a moral and intellectual state, as will render them capable of exercising intelligently the rights of free citizens, of sovereigns in our country. But the question recurs, how is this elevation to be accomplished? The first step seems naturally enough to be the removal of obstructions. These, as all are aware, by reason of the severe and protracted oppression, have become alarmingly great so that many pronounce the task impossible; and even the most sanguine consider it Herculean, but Herculean, though it be, the task has been self imposed by the nation, & delay but increases it.
The first obstruction to be removed consists in the mental apathy, which their condition has induced in them. The most effectual motive which could be brought to meet this would be to offer them at once, the hope of attaining to any and every office under the government, and to every position in society, which their mental culture and moral character render them capable of filling. This result we as females cannot directly accomplish, but we may constantly present the hope of the day of their jubilee being not far distant, as an incentive, to urge them to seek that improvement, which will enable them successfully to claim these rights.
Another obstacle, to be overcome in the work of elevation, is the mental disability of the class, a disability which belongs not to the race, but which is the result of a disuse of the Intellect, and the constant presence of brutish motives only, for every act of life. This obstacle can only be met by the most active and energetic efforts to secure the means of improvement to all who may be reached. This may be accomplished by seeing that their children attend our schools, by visiting mothers, and supplying those who can read with books teaching such as cannot, securing the diffusion of the many worthy publications of the day, thereby furnishing constant mental aliment. The mind thus brought into activity will not require the long lapse of years to regain its vigor, which have served to impair it.
Again we continue the wrong already committed, by countenancing the somewhat popular literature of the day, sometimes known as Ethiopian Melodies.[B] A volume of this character, fell into my hands during the past winter. It had often been a matter of wonder to me, while teaching, where the children could find such songs; until this was discovered. The sentiments had already pervaded the whole school. Hardly a recess occurred, without more or less of these being heard, and as a consequence the children were coming to consider the colored person as an inferior something, whose life was only to furnish amusement to others. One can hardly walk the streets of any city or village without hearing scraps of these songs often from lips too young to be aware of the sentiment they sing. These things perpetuate the prejudice already existing. Our influence should therefore be decidedly against, not only this practice, but every other having a similar tendency.
On the other hand the difficulties are often aggravated, by the indulgence of ill founded jealousies and suspicions, on the part of those whom we would elevate, which compels their best friends even, to act from a sense of naked duty, rather than from the unrestrained impulses of a generous heart. Such a spirit, on the part of any one, tends most effectually to close the sympathies of his benefactors, when a thankful spirit would invite the continuance of favors.
All that has been said is not only feasible, but important for us to perform, and the more so, that there are those about us daily, whom we can benefit by some of these methods, and thus, with the divine blessing, shall we be chosen instruments in the work of the redemption of our country.
Mary. May 28th 1850
Ladies Anti-Slavery Society
A. Matthew 23:29-31 : Jesus reproved the Pharisees, a separatist Jewish sect characterized by adherence to strict traditional values, for adorning the tombs of the prophets with flowers, despite their parents' guilt for these murders. The term "Pharisee" itself thus denoted a hypocritical or self-righteous person.
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B. Ethiopian Melodies combined the music of Southern spirituals with European popular songs creating compositions for use in blackface minstrel shows.
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