Black Lives Mattered to the Goodells

Lavinia Goodell grew up in a staunch abolitionist family. In 1833, her father William Goodell assisted in organizing the American Anti-Slavery Society. He started the “Emancipator” newspaper and in later years edited other similar papers, including “The Friend of Man,” “The Radical Abolitionist” and “The Principia,” on which Lavinia worked alongside him.

William Goodell - Lavinia's father

Even in the north, abolitionists were frequently persecuted and mobbed and their lives threatened. According to the In Memoriam pamphlet written by his daughters after his death in 1878:

Mr. Goodell was at one time obliged to leave his home in Brooklyn, with his family, and seek shelter in an obscure locality of New York, till the feeling of the mob-oligarchy had spent itself; at another time he barely escaped the grasp of an incoming mob, who clamorously offered a price for his head, as they put to rout an anti-slavery meeting being quietly held in a public hall in New York.

Lavinia’s sister Maria, twelve years Lavinia’s senior, recalled her childhood home:

The guests of the family were in a large proportion, the poor and defenceless, the stranger and the wayfarer without distinction of color or sex, came often to share the fire, the frugal meal, the nightly reposes…. The fugitive from slavery … to find the great hotel of the underground railroad, or the next station.

In 1840, eighteen months after Lavinia’s birth, her father wrote to his father-in-law, Josiah Cady, and reported that fourteen year old Maria was:

at Clinton [New York], at school – the seminary of Mr. Hiram H. Kellogg, one of our good friends. It is considered a very good school – and is kept on Christian and anti-slavery principles. White and colored girls received on terms of equality and live together without distinction of color. The scholars do the work of the establishment, … and each has her regular tasks and time of labor allotted to her.

In the same letter William Goodell lamented that some former abolitionists had abandoned the cause. “Every nerve has been strained by a few of us to keep the whole body of abolitionists from rushing to the support of the slavery candidates. What do men think of their professions? And what estimate do they make of their principles?”

The evening before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, William Goodell and two other New York men were with president Lincoln until midnight, urging the measure upon him lest, as some feared, his resolution might falter. When the Proclamation was issued at noon the next day, William had the satisfaction of seeing some of his expressions embodied in it.

 Lavinia wrote of her childhood:

I will remember in my childish days the awakening of thought on the subject of equal rights. The fierce conflict of ideas on the subject of American Slavery was at its height. The kneeling slave was pictured on our work bags, needle books and pin cushions with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” or sometimes “Am I not a woman and a sister?” Even our crockery was anti-slavery crockery. Among my childish recollections is that of sitting up the table and reading on my plate in blue letters, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created free and equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…. When I sat down to dinner every day I read my plate, till I had learned it all by heart. And thus literally with my child’s bowl of bread and milk I drank in also the questions of equal rights.

From a young age, Lavinia practiced and spoke out about her anti-slavery views. In 1854, as a fifteen year old student at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, for one of her assignments she wrote a draft letter to Senator Stephen A. Douglas.

Stephen A. Douglas

In the letter Lavinia chastised Douglas for his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed settlers of a territory to determine whether slavery would be allowed within its borders. Although there is no indication the letter was actually sent, it shows Lavinia’s strong convictions on the subject:

Sir, I have watched, with the deepest regret, your course during the past year in reference to the Nebraska Bill…. Your efforts have succeeded and a land once consecrated to Freedom is now sacrificed to Slavery….

[T]he demon slavery with an insatiable thirst for human blood, desires to extend its dominions beyond the prescribed boundaries…. The same insatiable thirst which has urged it to extend its dominions thus far will not abate till the entire nation has bowed to its sway….

Sir, How can you continue in the path you have been pursuing? How can you exert your influence for the extension of this traffic in human souls? Your conscience cannot approve such a course as you are pursuing. I urge you to follow its dictates before it is too late.

With respect I remain your ob’t servant.

L. Goodell

Sources consulted: William Goodell: In Memoriam (Guilbert &  Winchell, Printer, 1879); Letter from William Goodell to Josiah Cady, November 26, 1940; Life of Lavinia Goodell, Maria Frost, unpublished biography; So Life is Learning, Elisabeth S. Peck, unpublished biography of Lavinia Goodell. Both biographies may be found in the William Goodell Family Papers at the Special Collections & Archives, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.

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