Congratulations to Jesse Olsavsky on his new book “The Most Absolute Abolition Runaways: Vigilance Committees, and the Rise of Revolutionary Abolitionism, 1835–1861”

Jesse Olsavsky

Congratulations to Jesse Olsavsky, Assistant Professor of History and Co-Director of the Freedom Lab at the Humanities Research Center at Duke Kunshan University!

His new book, The Most Absolute Abolition, “tells the dramatic story of how vigilance committees organized the Underground Railroad and revolutionized the abolitionist movement. These groups, based primarily in northeastern cities, defended Black neighborhoods from police and slave catchers. As the urban wing of the Underground Railroad, they helped as many as ten thousand refugees, building an elaborate network of like-minded sympathizers across boundaries of nation, gender, race, and class.

Olsavsky reveals how the committees cultivated a movement of ideas animated by a motley assortment of agitators and intellectuals, including famous figures such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Henry David Thoreau, who shared critical information with one another. Formerly enslaved runaways—who grasped the economy of slavery, developed their own political imaginations, and communicated strategies of resistance to abolitionists—serve as the book’s central focus. The dialogues between fugitives and abolitionists further radicalized the latter’s tactics and inspired novel forms of feminism, prison reform, and utopian constructs. These notions transformed abolitionism into a revolutionary movement, one at the heart of the crises that culminated in the Civil War.”

Read an interview with Jesse Olsavsky below.

Could you tell us about your new book and what inspired you to write it?  

My book explores one part of the history to abolish African slavery in the Americas, by focusing on abolitionist organizations called vigilance committees. From the 1830s to the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-65), US abolitionists formed vigilance committees to assist runaway slaves in their struggles to free themselves from an ever-growing slave empire. The committees defended Black neighborhoods from police and slave catchers. They forcefully freed fugitives from prisons and courthouses. They also served as the urban wing of the Underground Railroad, assisting as many as 10,000 enslaved people to escape the “prison house” of American slavery, while building an elaborate network of underground allies from the South to the North, from the Caribbean to Canada to the British Isles. In so doing, the committees attracted a diverse array of radicals from all genders, races, and classes, while recruiting underground fugitives into the aboveground movement to overthrow slavery.

Very often histories of the Underground Railroad tell tales of how fugitives secretively moved from “one station” to another. The Most Absolute Abolition reveals the vigilance committees to be a movement of ideas as much as of people, as the space where a motley crew of unusual agitators learned from one another and learned from the fugitives who did most to end slavery. Based on the recorded testimony of thousands of freedom seekers who came to the vigilance committees and told their life stories, the book begins with the ways fugitives escaped slavery, understood the political economy of slavery, developed their own political imaginations, and imparted their knowledge to abolitionists. It shows how these fugitive-abolitionist dialogues not only radicalized abolitionist sensibilities and tactics, but also inspired novel forms of feminism, prison abolition, reparationism, and utopian speculation. Such ideas and deeds transformed abolitionism into a revolutionary movement, at the heart of the crises that culminated in the Civil War.

What made you interested in studying slavery?  

For many years, I (like many activists and scholars) was perpetually aware that we all lived under the shadow of slavery and white supremacy, as well as the subversive movements that tried to abolish them. The enslavement of Africans in the Americas, as so many scholars have proven, was a system of production, labor exploitation, racialized and patriarchal oppression that helped propel America and the West into capitalism. Abolitionism—particularly in the cases of Haiti and the US—was the first attempt to challenge this system, sometimes obliquely and incompletely, sometimes radically and immediately. It constituted, perhaps, the most subversive democratic social movement prior to decolonization, the first of the many tragically incomplete efforts to overturn global white supremacy. For a very long time I felt I needed to better understand the nature of this struggle. I started researching this book in 2012, and time has only reinforced my commitment to studying this subject. In 2014, nationwide protests against racialized policing and mass incarceration—themselves afterlives of slavery—were reignited under the slogan of Black Lives Matter. The protesting and organizing which came out of that moment continues to the present day, and has shaped the consciousness of many people. Today it is far more common for young people, or people interested in social justice, to speak seriously of “racial capitalism” or to describe themselves as “abolitionists.” The legacies of slavery and the inspiration of abolitionists still live with us, and it is as important as ever, I believe, to know those histories in every little detail.

What is something you learned in the process of writing this book?

I learned a lot of facts, that’s for sure, not to mention how to do extensive archival research. I learned how to write too, an absolutely vital skill. I have further learned that my subject of study is not merely of provincial concern to US-based academics. I have had the privilege to lecture on topics related to my book to public audiences in the US as well as to audiences in other places in Europe, in India, in Japan. Before I began researching as a scholar, I didn’t even have a passport! Since then, I have had the privilege to travel (and read) quite widely. That is invaluable.

What are your next projects?

I am working on two things. First is an essay length study of the anti-colonial thought of Evelyn Trent and Ellen Gottschalk, both of whom, at various times, were married to the famous Indian philosopher-revolutionary M.N. Roy. Both women were philosophers and writers of striking breadth, depth, and originality (Ellen having contacts with the “Frankfurt School”) who forsook comfortable lives in the west to involve themselves in the Indian Freedom Struggle. Curiously, Roy never mentioned either women in his now classic 600-page memoirs, and thus they have been almost completely forgotten.  I have also been furiously at work on my second book, tentatively titled ‘“In the Tradition’: The Abolitionist Tradition and Human Emancipation.” Throughout the twentieth century, numerous emancipatory movements in numerous parts of the world—from Pan-Africanism to Black Power, from Socialism to Anarchism to various anti-colonial movements—studied, wrote about, and re-invoked the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement during their own struggles for self-determination. There was, in short, a long history of activists consciously seeing themselves as heirs to radical abolitionism, or as part of what anti-colonial activist Paul Robeson called “the abolitionist tradition.”


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