“Shaking” It Up: Centering Black Quakers on Juneteenth

A watercolor painting by Sarah Mapps Douglass

Freedom Day, better known to some as Juneteenth, has been commemorated on June 19th as a federal holiday in the United States since 2021. Although some people believe that Juneteenth is “the day that slavery ended,” this is not the case. President Lincoln released his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, stating that all enslaved persons within the Confederacy were made to be free from bondage under his orders. Unfortunately for many of those who would have been freed, most Confederate states no longer took orders from President Lincoln and continued practicing slavery until Union soldiers could enforce the law throughout the Confederacy.

As Texas was the state most geographically south, Texas was the last state to have Union soldiers forcibly liberate all enslaved people within its borders. This occurred on June 19, 1865, a little more than two years after they were legally freed by President Lincoln’s command. President Lincoln was assassinated two months prior on April 15, 1865, meaning that he did not live to see his Emancipation Proclamation enforced. After the passing of President Lincoln, the practice of slavery continued in the Union states until December 6, 1865. Although President Lincoln played an active role in the emancipation of the enslaved in the Confederacy, we must remember that Black activists played a pivotal role in fighting for the liberation of all. In this article, I will be focusing on the contributions of Black Quaker abolitionists as a way to commemorate a piece of their dreams coming to fruition through Juneteenth.

Captain Paul Cuffe (January 17, 1759- September 7, 1817) was a Black Quaker and Pan-Africanist who made his fortune as a whaler and trader. Capt. Cuffee’s success as an entrepreneur may have led him to become the “wealthiest black American of his time,” according to historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his article “Who Led the First Back-to-Africa Effort?” featured on the PBS website. Capt. Cuffee spent his fortune by realizing his dream of a successful Free Black American colony located in Africa. Capt. Cuffee used his trade connections between The United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa to organize one shipload of both free and enslaved Blacks to emigrate to Sierra Leone annually. The Back-to-Africa movement was so successful under his leadership that Capt. Cuffee was one of the first Black people ever to be granted a presidential audience.

Sarah Mapps Douglass (September 9, 1806- September 8, 1882) was a Black Quaker and educator who used her communication skills to propel the abolitionist movement to its height from 1831-1837. Using her education and platform as an activist, Mrs. Douglass published several anti-slavery journals and established the Female Literacy Association in 1831 which housed a community of educated Black women. The paintings that accompanied her literature may have been the first signed paintings by a Black American woman. In 1833, Mrs. Douglass joined her mother, Grace Bustill Douglass, in being a founding member of the interracial Female Anti-Slavery Society located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Even after the Civil War ended, Mrs. Douglass continued her fight for equal rights by taking on the role of the vice-chairman of the Woman’s Pennsylvania Branch of the American Freedmen’s Aid Commission.

Cyrus Bustill (January 17, 1758- 1806) was a Black Quaker, brewer, baker, and minister who also happened to be an ancestor of the aforementioned Sarah Mapps Douglass. Unlike his descendants, Cyrus was born as a slave to his father. During Cyrus’s lifetime, the American war for independence broke out against England. Although this war was originally predicted to be short and an easy win for the Naval superpower of England, the American colonists put up quite a fight. To cause chaos and turn the tide of the war back in England’s favor, King George III offered liberation to any enslaved American who fought for the British cause. Cyrus Bustill took advantage of this opportunity and was freed even though the English lost the war. Mr. Bustill used his newfound freedom to establish the Free African Society which fundraised for Black churches, provided community relief, and established a Black school after being denied entry to white schools in the Philadelphia area.

Captain Paul Cuffee, Sarah Mapps Douglass, and Cyrus Bustill were four different Black American Quakers who had differing backgrounds and methods of abolition but they all fought for a common cause. While commemorating the liberation of the remaining slaves held under the Texas confederacy, let’s not forget to shine a spotlight on the Black leaders who fought for the freedom of ALL long before it was received.