Beriah Green – Abolitionist Visionary with an Edge

Beriah Green (1795-1874) was an early abolitionist, founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the New York Anti-Slavery Society, and the Liberty Party. The hotbed of abolitionism, the Oneida Institute in New York, was “President Green’s school”. His radical vision went beyond the abolition of slavery and included a truly egalitarian interracial society. Beriah Green as a supporter of immediate abolition was far ahead of many other white abolitionists who in the early 1830s often espoused colonization. Leading black abolitionist Alexander Crummell called Green “master thinker and master teacher”, and the author of the only book about Green “Abolition’s Axe”.

Beriah Green was born on March 24, 1795, in Connecticut, but his family moved to Vermont when he was a teenager. After graduating from college he studied theology to become a minister. He married in 1821 and became pastor in Brandon, Vermont two years later. After his wife died in 1826, leaving him with 2 children, he married Daraxa Foote with whom he would have seven more children. After serving briefly at a church in Maine, he was appointed as professor of sacred literature and college pastor at the Western Reserve College and Preparatory School, in Hudson, Ohio in 1830.

In Hudson, abolitionist John Brown’s childhood home, Green became more exposed to discussions of race and slavery than in Vermont and New England. He had supported causes to improve the human condition before – such as prison reform, manual labor schools, Christian education, and had opposed the Indian removal act. But it was at Western Reserve where he became not only an abolitionist but made abolition and equality for black people his raison d’être.

At Western Reserve, Green met mathematics professor Elizur Wright and college president Charles Backus Storrs, both originally supporters of the American Colonization Society encouraging the emigration of free black Americans to Africa to live there without oppression and racism. Green, Wright, and Storrs became heavily influenced by William Lloyd Garrison’s pamphlet Thoughts on African Colonization and his new anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator and became strong and vocal supporters of immediate abolitionism. In March 1832, a controversy between students espousing colonization and those adopting immediatism broke out, with Green and Wright working to win more and more students over to the abolitionist cause.

After having students debate the two different views as part of a classroom assignment, apparently triggered by colonizationist arguments, Green held an abolitionist sermon on November 18, 1832, which was followed by three more on the following Sundays, which caused commotion and more debate. He published these sermons as pamphlets which became highly influential in the national antislavery movement and a contributing factor to the foundation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, which made Beriah Green after he presided over the founding meeting, its first president. However, the uproar created by the sermons and pamphlets created to Green’s forced resignation under pressure from conservative trustees.

However, Green had already an offer for the position of president from the progressive Oneida Institute of Science and Technology in Whitesboro, New York. His conditions to accept the appointment were that he be allowed to a) accept black students, and b) preach immediate abolition of slavery. In his inauguration speech, he called for immediate, unconditional emancipation. Under Green’s leadership, Oneida Institute accepted more black students than any other college in the US. Many black abolitionists and future black leaders, such as Henry Highland Garnet, Jermain Wesley Loguen, and Alexander Crummell, went to Oneida Institute. Green also welcomed fugitive slaves in both his home and the Institute, where students hid them in their dormitories.

Beriah Green crusaded tirelessly against slavery and colonization, preaching and teaching in the classroom, the chapel, and in public lectures as an agent of the American Antislavery Society, causing tension and conflict, but also the resignation of conservatives and enabling him to turn the Institute into a training camp for abolitionists. From his post, he expanded the abolitionist movement, helped to organize antislavery societies in Rochester and Syracuse. He challenged the president of the Colonization Society of New York and New England to public debates, which resulted in a mob hanging Green in effigy but also mentioning his persuasiveness in the pro-colonization press.

Black leaders put great emphasis on elevation through education and Green’s approach was both unusual and important. His approach was so truly egalitarian, that school records did not indicate race and he was not interested in numbers or quotas.

Green envisioned his school as a model biracial and prejudice-free community. Interracial education was to be the acid test for his abolitionism. If abolitionists themselves could not demonstrate the practicality of Christian egalitarian principles, then their fulminations against the slaveholders were hollow and hypocritical … Many white abolitionists were content to love the enslaved black at a distance; their abolitionism had little to do with how they treated Afro-Americans in their communities. Beriah Green’s abolitionim began where that of other opponents of chattel slavery ended.

Green convinced Upstate abolitionist, social reformer, and philanthropist Gerrit Smith to merge his black manual labor school in Peterboro with the institute. The two men had corresponded before about black education and developed a friendship that stretched over decades. In 1835, Green encouraged Smith to attend the initial meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society in Utica. After it was broken up by a mob Smith invited the hundreds of abolitionists to continue the meeting at his estate the next day, the founding date of the society.

His most widely known essay is Things for Northern Men to Do which he delivered as a sermon on July 17, 1836, in which he called American slavery “a system of fraud, adultery, and murder “, held whites in the North accountable tolerating the slave trade in D.C, not aiding fugitive slaves, and their prejudice based on complexion. He also called out the church for supporting slavery and for breaking up with all denominations tolerating slaveholding members.

Has the North nothing to do with a system of oppression, under which more than two millions of our countrymen are crushed? … In silently permitting or loudly encouraging the rabble, made up of ignorant, thoughtless, wretched creatures, who know not, and care not, what they do, to wage open war upon them? Nothing, in giving up her own children to the mad-dog violence of southern tyranny, to be insulted, scourged, murdered? Has the North nothing to do with a system of oppression, which is corrupting the morals, and wasting the strength, and blasting the character, of the nation? …. Yes, verily. The North has much to do with American slavery. It has deeply involved her in guilt.

By then, Oneida Institute had become a national hotbed of abolitionist activism, and Green’s enemies incl. tried to reign him in by denying funds and accreditations. After the Panic of 1837, which hit benefactors like the Tappan brothers and Gerrit Smith hard, the college started to have severe financial problems. Green also lost the support of conservative Presbyterians, because he led members of the Whitesboro Presbyterian church to secede and form their own church, the Whitesboro Congregational Church in 1837, where Green served as pastor for over 20 years from 1843 when the college had to close.

The loss of his school was dispiriting for Green. To make things worse, his daughter Ann, with whom he had a close relationship and who was said to be the one person to understand him best, died in 1844. Green was devastated and wrote a 40 page long memorial for her.

Beriah Green was an active supporter of the abolitionist Liberty Party, but because he didn’t see the progress and success he wished for, he became disenchanted with the political system, the democratic process, parties and their representatives, and voters, who kept failing to get rid of slavery.

Over the next years, he turned from intense, combative, and uncompromising (which he had always been) to become more and more irritable, contentious, and resentful, eventually breaking ties with many of his abolitionist friends, including Gerrit Smith. He continued to preach to small groups of abolitionists, but stayed close to Whitesboro and supported his family by farming. Beriah Green died on May 4, 1874, aged 79, while giving a speech.

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