Abolitionist William Greenleaf Eliot

Today, many are working to reframe history and bring to light new stories that are yet untold. As the research unfolds, the terminology being used is evolving as well. Recently, I asked: “what is an abolitionist?” and turned to the U.S. National Park Service’s Network to Freedom, National  Underground Railroad for help. In 1998, legislation titled the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998 was passed, creating the Network to Freedom program. Its mission, through collaboration with local, state and federal entities, as well as individuals and organizations, is to honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide. In its’ terminology it states:

Abolitionist: A person opposed to slavery. Abolitionists were typically politically active and worked to eradicate the legal framework of slavery. They may or may not have acted on their antislavery principles by helping individuals escape from slavery.


I also considered  “Many labels for escaping African Americans were constructs of enslaving society or by paternalistic abolitionists” when looking at the term for a fugitive slave. They also state “The term fugitive is linked to the various Fugitive Slave Laws (1793, 1850) passed by the U.S. Congress, and emphasizes that the fugitive was acting criminally to escape from bondage.” Author William Greenleaf Eliot definitely reveals himself as a paternalistic abolitionist with his 1885 book The Story of Archer Alexander – From Slavery to Freedom, March 30, 1863 in which he defines Archer as “a fugitive slave”.

Archer Alexander

Archer Alexander was an enslaved African American who had fled from his owner Richard Hickman Pitman, in early 1863, after reporting his owner’s treasonous activities in St. Charles County. With a lynch mob after Archer, the fugitive slave would find refuge at the home of Eliot in St. Louis. On March 30, 1863 Eliot would address a letter to Pitman one more time asking to purchase Archer. Eliot was not an enslaver but wanted to see Archer manumitted which is  “The freeing of an individual or group of enslaved African Americans by will, purchase, legal petition, or legislation” as the only person able to emancipate an enslaved person is their owner. Eliot would see that Archer was a free man on September 24, 1863.

But it was on Wednesday, January 11, 1865, on the fifth day of the Missouri Constitutional Convention held in St. Louis, that Eliot would truly reveal himself as an abolitionist. German-born Arnold Krekel who had been elected President of the Convention of Missouri Legislators [according to the Minutes of Missouri’s Constitutional Convention January 6 – April 10, 1865] called to address the legal issue of slavery had invited the Unitarian minister to join them. When James Owens, Secretary of the Convention called for the vote of Charles D. Drake’s motion for “An Ordinance for the abolition of slavery in the State of Missouri”  he moved that Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot lead the Convention in prayer, which he did. With that, and the final reading by Drake, Missouri’s Emancipation Proclamation had just passed. William G. Eliot was definitely an abolitionist and had addressed the issue of freedom not only for Archer Alexander but for every enslaved person in the State of Missouri.

Sources for References and Quotes

William Greenleaf Eliot 1811-1887

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