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Sarah Parker Remond was born in 1826 in Salem. Her mother Nancy was the Newton-born daughter of a man who fought in the Continental Army; her father John was a free black who arrived from the Dutch island of Curacao as a boy of ten in 1798. The Remonds settled in Salem, where they built a successful catering, provisioning, and hairdressing business. Although they were prosperous free citizens of Massachusetts and protective parents, they could not shield their eight children from racial discrimination. The family set great store on education, and in l835, Sarah and her sister passed the examination to enter the Salem High School. Within a week, they were forced to leave the school by a segregationist school committee. Outraged, the Remonds moved to Newport, RI, where Sarah attended a private school for blacks. John Remond mounted a campaign to desegregate the Salem schools, and when he succeeded in 1841, the family returned home. Sarah continued her education by reading widely and attending concerts and lectures.
Salem in the 1840s was a center of anti-slavery activity. The Remonds were all ardent abolitionists. They played host to many of the movement's leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, and to more than one fugitive slave. Her father was a life member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society; and her older brother Charles Lenox Remond was the American Anti-Slavery Society's first black lecturer and the nation's leading black abolitionist until Frederick Douglass appeared on the scene in 1842. Along with her mother and sisters, Sarah was an active member of the state and county female anti-slavery societies. Although her sisters followed their parents' trade and became caterers, bakers, and hairdressers, Sarah made a different--and for the time, highly unusual--choice. With the moral and material support of her family, she became an anti-slavery lecturer.
In 1856, at the age of 30, she went to work for the American Anti-slavery Society. She had first come to public notice three years before when she was ejected from a Boston theater because she refused to sit in a segregated gallery. She was handled roughly by a policeman, and successfully sued the theater's owners for $500 in damages. In 1856, she began her career as a public speaker, touring New York State with a team of lecturers that included her brother Charles and another courageous Massachusetts woman, Abby Kelly Foster. Abby Foster's example and encouragement were critical in Sarah Remond's decision to take the step of becoming an anti-slavery lecturer. "I feel almost sure," Sarah wrote to Abby, "I never should have made the attempt but for the words of encouragement I received from you. Although my heart was in the work, I felt that I was in need of a good English education. ... When I consider that the only reason why I did not obtain what I so much desired was because I was the possessor of an unpopular complexion, it adds to my discomfort."
Although she was inexperienced, even early on, Sarah Remond was an effective speaker. William Lloyd Garrison praised her "calm, dignified manner, her winning personal appearance and her earnest appeals to the conscience and the heart." Over time, she became one of the Society's most persuasive and powerful lecturers. She addressed crowded anti-slavery meetings in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. ( Susan B. Anthony was sometimes on the same tour.) In May 1858, she appeared at the national woman's rights convention in New York City.
Sarah Parker Remond proved to be such a good speaker, and such a good fundraiser, that she was invited to take the anti-slavery message to Great Britain, something her brother had done ten years before. When she sailed in September 1858, she told Abby Kelly Foster, she feared not "the wind nor the waves, but I know that no matter how I go, the spirit of prejudice will meet me." In fact, she met with acceptance in Britain. "I have been received here as a sister by white women for the first time in my life, she wrote; "I have received a sympathy I never was offered before." She was the first educated, cultivated black woman described by one as "a lady every inch" that the British had ever seen. She spoke out against both slavery and racial discrimination, and stressed the sexual exploitation of black women under slavery. She played an important role in drawing British abolitionists' attention to the disabilities suffered by free black people throughout the United States. In her short autobiography, written in 1861, she stressed that "prejudice against colour has always been the one thing, above all others, which has cast its gigantic shadow over my whole life."
A clear and forceful speaker, Sarah Remond lectured to enthusiastic crowds in cities throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, and raised large sums of money for the anti-slavery cause. Once war began, she worked to build support in Britain for the Union blockade of the Confederacy and did much to influence public opinion in Britain in support of the Union cause. At the end of the war, she lectured on behalf of the freedmen, soliciting funds and clothing for the ex-slaves. During her years in Britain, she combined lecturing with studying at the Bedford College for Ladies (now part of the University of London). In 1866, she left England for Florence, Italy and at the age of 42, entered medical school. She became a doctor, married an Italian, and as far as we know, never returned to the United States. (In fact, two of her sisters joined her in self-imposed exile.)
(Born June 6, 1826, Salem; died December 13, 1894, Florence, Italy. Photo courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.)