Sarah Parker Remond

Remembering Sarah Parker Remond

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By Becca Bashford

“My strongest desire through life has been to be educated. I found the most exquisite pleasure in reading and as we had no library, I read every book which came in my way, and I longed for more.”

Sarah Parker Remond, June 1861

It’s no secret that the triumphs and achievements of many women, particularly black women, have been lost to the past. That’s why it’s so important that we try tirelessly to bring these women back to the forefront of our conversations, and remember how they shaped the world that we experience today. One of these women is Sarah Parker Remond – abolitionist, activist, anti-slavery orator, lecturer, physician, and so much more. In 1859, Sarah attended Bedford College for Women, now merged with my own university – Royal Holloway, University of London, and as the college’s first black student, her story is a fascinating and inspiring one.

Sarah Parker Remond, born free in Massachusetts, was raised in the epicentre of the social, political and cultural abolition movement of Salem. Her parents, John Remond and Nancy Lenox, were staunch anti-slavery activists, and her older brother, Charles Lenox-Remond, was the first black lecturer of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Sarah was passionate about her education, but after passing the entry examinations necessary to study at a secondary school in Salem, she was forced to leave – the segregationist committee would not allow her to study amongst the white children. In 1853, Sarah and her sister Caroline purchased tickets for the opera, and upon arrival were told they could not sit in their allocated seats in the Family Circle and would have to sit in the segregated section of the theatre. Sarah refused, and was subsequently pushed down a flight of stairs and forced out of the theatre. She pursued legal action and won five hundred dollars in damages, and the theatre was ordered to integrate all seating. These events are largely considered to be the catalyst which sparked a lifetime of activism, she noted “Years have elapsed since this occurred, but the memory of it is as fresh as ever in my mind…engraved on my heart.”

Sarah began lecturing and spreading the abolitionist message at just sixteen years old. In 1856 she was invited by the American Anti-Slavery society to tour and lecture across multiple American states, and in 1859 she began her tour of the UK, determined to gather support for the abolitionist cause. She wrote of her anxieties about travelling to England:

“…I dread starting for many reasons. I do not fear the wind nor the waves, but I know that no matter how I go, the spirit of prejudice will meet me”.

Despite these anxieties, shortly after her arrival she was warmly welcomed by British abolitionist activists such as William Robson, and was later introduced to Mattie Griffith, a prominent voice for the women’s suffrage movement. Utilising the transatlantic network of activists which was largely cultivated by her older brother, Sarah created a form of oration which powerfully weaved together an evolving feminist message which prioritised racial justice and women’s suffrage. At this point in time, African American speakers exploited the Victorian obsession with sensationalism and spoke explicitly about the treatment of slaves – making use of the large crowds which would gather to hear tales of mistreatment and injustice, the abolitionist message was at the heart of British activism. Sarah’s lectures were closely followed by the British press, particularly The England Woman’s Journal, and in a mere matter of months her lectures attracted crowds of over 2,000 people. The lectures covered various topics, including but not limited to: slavery, corruption in American politics and churches, and the sexual exploitation of enslaved women. During the American Civil War, she urged the middle-class attendants of her lectures to buy cotton from India, instead of slave-harvested cotton from the American South, and worked closely with pro-unionists to support the Union Blockade of the Confederacy, which lead to cotton exports from the US dropping by 95%.

In 1859, Sarah decided to attend Bedford College for Women, now merged with my own university – Royal Holloway, University of London. It is thought that she was the college’s first black student. Here, she studied English Literature, Latin, History, and Music, continuing her lecture tours during breaks. It was also here that she met and lived with Elizabeth Jesser Reid – founder of Bedford College. Reid sought to provide a liberal higher education to women, which was inexistent in Britain at the time. Sarah became a founding member of the Ladies’ London Emancipation Society, the first national anti-slavery society for women. It is also thought that she was the only black woman to have signed the 1866 petition for women’s voting rights, which was later delivered to parliament by John Stuart Mill.

Following the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, over four hundred protesters were hunted down and murdered by British troops. Sarah wrote to the Daily News expressing her outrage of the treatment of Black Jamaicans by the British army, and shortly after she left England and moved to Italy. It is unclear why Sarah relocated to Italy, but it is largely speculated that she was so disillusioned by the treatment of the Black population of the colonies at the hands of the British, she decided to leave England. In Italy, she studied medicine at the prestigious medical school Santa Maria Nuovo in Florence, and became a qualified doctor in 1868.

Sarah Parker Remond lived out the rest of her days in Florence, practising medicine for over twenty years. She died in 1894, and was laid to rest in a cemetery in Rome. Undoubtedly, she should be remembered as one of the most influential women of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements of the 1800’s, but also as a pioneer of black feminism in Britain. Through her tireless work with fellow activists and suffragettes, she created an entirely new type of discourse which she carried across oceans, offering a fearless example of female empowerment.

Suggested Reading:

An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe, by Sirpa Salenius.

Sources:

An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe, by Sirpa Salenius.

“Leading Women: A voice of Freedom, Sarah Parker Remond” – London University Website, News and Opinion

“Sarah Parker Remond” – Suffrage Resources Website

“Sarah Parker Remond” – Royal Holloway Website

“Remond at Bedford College in London” – Sarah Parker Remond WordPress Site

“Sarah Parker Remond” – The Bedford Centre WordPress Site

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