David Ruggles and the Northampton Association
By Linda Ziegenbein
Presented at the
Third Annual Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue Celebration and Commemoration
May 28, 2006
On this warm Memorial Day weekend where we honor those who have died in military service to our country and here in Florence where we also honor the life and work of Sojourner Truth, there is another person who needs to be remembered: David Ruggles. Ruggles was a contemporary of Sojourner’s, joining the utopian community established here in 1842.
Trying to summarize David Ruggles will inevitably do him injustice. Words I could use to describe him would be: journalist, businessman, doctor, abolitionist, or activist. Still other appropriate words would be son, friend, mentor, American or blind man. Today, my hope is to introduce you to this remarkable man and to consider the incredibly high costs some pay for their social activism.
David Ruggles was born to a free Black family in Norwich, Connecticut in 1810. At the age of seventeen, he moved to New York City and soon after opened a grocery store, which was later to become the first bookstore owned by an African American in the United States. He also became involved in the abolitionist movement, publishing many articles condemning slavery. He was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and is believed to have helped at least 600 people, including Frederick Douglass, escape to freedom. Additionally, he was one of the founders of the New York Committee of Vigilance. This committeee, comprised of Black abolitionists, was dedicated to confronting the practices in New York that continued to support enslavement despite New York’s status as a “free” state.
One of the things opposed by the Vigilance Committee was the practice of kidnapping people of African descent and selling them into slavery in the South. The justification for this practice was that the kidnappers were simply recovering the human property that had fled from their “owners”. In fact, any person of African descent could be kidnapped since once a person was “captured”, they were only given a short time to prove that they were not escapees. Ruggles would openly confront the slave catchers, whom he called “kidnappers”, and the Vigilance Committee would offer them legal assistance. Ruggles himself knew the dangers people of African descent faced as there was at least one attempt to break into his apartment late at night, kidnap him, and sell him into slavery in the South.
Although New York had emancipated all of the people who were enslaved in the state in 1827, the issue of whether enslaved workers brought into the state were to be emancipated was still unresolved. State law mandated that all enslaved workers brought into New York be freed after nine months. Ruggles would go into elite white neighborhoods in New York City to find out how long the workers had been there and to let them know they were free.
These activities earned Ruggles his share of enemies. Aside from the kidnapping attempt, his grocery store was burned down, there were several attempts to lynch him, and he was physically assaulted several times. There were those among the abolitionist movement who also disagreed with his tactics. Like many Black abolitionists, Ruggles was opposed to the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending people of African descent to Africa. There were also Black abolitionists who viewed Ruggles’ tactics as too extreme. His conflict with these groups came to a head in the late 1830s and he left New York City under a cloud of scandal for Florence.
Here, he found much needed supportive companionship and rest. He sought out treatments for the many ailments that afflicted him in his adult life, including intermittent blindness. A treatment he attempted and had some luck with was hydropathy, the water-cure. After being treated, he became a student and, then, a doctor of hydropathy, establishing the first hydropathy hospital in the nation here in Florence.
As you can see from this brief introduction to his life, Ruggles was a remarkable man and a passionate social activist. We know that the costs for his social activism were his livelihood and his physical well-being. However, the extent to which he paid psychologically is difficult to determine. What we do know is that the chronic illnesses which plagued him in his adult life, including his blindness, can all be brought about by stress. Michael Blakey, a biological anthropologist, has argued that chronic illness in African American populations is the result of the stress of living in a racist society. David Ruggles was a man who not only lived in a racist society, but he also actively confronted and sought to change it. Whether the psychological stress brought about by his activism killed him might never be known, but it undoubtedly shortened his life. David Ruggles died here in Florence on December 18, 1849. He was not quite 40 years old.
So what are we to learn from the lives of activists like David Ruggles? Is it that we should not seek to better the world unless we are prepared to sacrifice our friends, our livelihood and our health? I don’t think so. Rather, knowing that there were those who came before us whose sacrifices were so great should further impel us to continue their work. The price David Ruggles paid to create a more equitable society was great. That the struggle continues almost a hundred and sixty years after his death is a great injustice. It is our privilege to continue that work. Thank you.
African American Registry
2005 One of the First to Fight Slavery, David Ruggles! Electronic document,
accessed May 21, 2006.
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2004 Coloring Utopia: The African American Presence in the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. In Letters from an American Utopia: The Stetson Family and the Northampton Association, 1843-1847, edited by C. Clark and K.W. Buckley, pp. 239-278. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.
Hodges, Graham Russell
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Painter, Nell Irwin
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