Last Saturday, I was standing on hallowed ground. As I rose to speak to hundreds of people gathered for a benefit concert at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, I had to take a deep breath. That’s because on that very spot, 150 years ago, anti-slavery activists were attending the funeral of one my wife’s ancestors, the noted abolitionist and congressman, Owen Lovejoy.
I knew that my words could never be as powerful as the eulogy delivered in 1864 by Plymouth Church’s founder, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.
“Owen Lovejoy was evidence that a man might become heroic,” the New York Times quoted Rev. Beecher as saying about Lovejoy and his dedication to ending slavery. “He was built broad and square and healthy and resolute, fitted to fight this battle.”
As I stood where Rev. Beecher had, I noted that our movement today is just as strong, just as resolute. My words stressed our connections to the past, and commitment to finish the job that our predecessors had started.
Saturday’s concert was an extraordinary combination of reflection, song and prayer, thanks to the kindness of Plymouth Church, which put on the benefit concert for Free the Slaves, and the Brooklyn Historical Society, which organized a panel on modern day slavery the night before.
Plymouth Church was founded in 1847 by Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most prominent abolitionists of the pre-Civil War era. The fight against slavery was, in fact, a family cause. Henry’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His brother, Edward, was a leader of the abolitionist movement in Illinois, where he worked closely with another famous set of abolitionist brothers – Owen, Elijah and John Lovejoy. Owen Lovejoy was Abraham Lincoln’s closest friend in Congress. Edward Beecher was a staunch defender of Elijah Lovejoy, who was eventually murdered by a mob for publishing an abolitionist newspaper.
Plymouth Church was a key link in the Underground Railroad. Abraham Lincoln attended Plymouth Church in 1860, the day before he gave an anti-slavery speech in Manhattan that helped secure his Republican Party nomination for the presidential election. It was thrill to sit briefly in the Abraham Lincoln pew at Plymouth Church!
On Friday evening, the Brooklyn Historical Society, which has mounted a wonderful exhibit on slavery and abolitionism in Brooklyn, hosted a panel on modern-day slavery. Dr. Timothy McCarthy, a well-known historian of social movements who is on the Harvard University faculty and the FTS board, gave an erudite and passionate talk on the lessons that modern abolitionists can draw from the antebellum abolitionist movement. Tina Frundt, founder and executive director of Courtney’s House, gave a moving presentation on her experience as a slavery survivor. I had the opportunity to speak about the lessons we have learned at Free the Slaves about combating modern day slavery. Loretta Lynch, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of New York, moderated the panel. More than 125 people came to the session and engaged the panel in a lively discussion.
The following evening, Plymouth Church hosted the concert. The truly incredible line-up of performers consisted of The Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, and The Impressions. The people who braved a stormy night to attend received a rare treat. There is no way for me to capture the beauty and power of the singing. All I can really share is that the entire evening was a deeply moving and captivating experience. We are so grateful to Plymouth Church, the organizers and the performers for a truly unforgettable experience.
It’s an ancient abuse. But it persists throughout the world today. Slavery remains one of the greatest human rights challenges of history.
Modern-day slavery looks different than the sailing ships and shackles we learned about in high school history class. Today, it’s largely hidden from sight. People now are trapped by different forces — less visible, but just as powerful.
The Free the Slaves team exposes what slavery looks like today in a gripping new video, now online on YouTube or Vimeo. It’s an important primer that reveals the magnitude of the problem during Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
In the film, FTS country directors from India, Nepal, Haiti, Congo and Ghana explain how slavery affects their nations. It’s about “separation and exploitation,” says FTS Haiti Country Director Smith Maxime. “You question, is this really happening,” says FTS Ghana Country Director Joha Braimah.
The film also examines how FTS assists people in slavery to break free.
“We help them to get organized,” says FTS Nepal Country Director Neelam Sharma. “We involve the communities themselves to find a solution,” says FTS Country Director Jack Kahorha.
FTS South Asia Director notes in the film that the FTS model for change is working.
“Wherever we have approached,’ she says, “after a few years we see that area has become slavery-free.”
Brooklyn hosts two important anti-slavery events next weekend that will shine a light on trafficking and the innovative methods FTS has developed to fight it.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 11: Plymouth Church will be hosting a benefit concert for Free the Slaves. Join an all-star lineup, including The Impressions, Naiomi Shelton, members of The Dap-Kings, The Gospel Queens and the Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Plymouth Church has a long history of involvement in the abolition and civil rights movements. It was once known as “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. Abraham Lincoln attended service there. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached there. The historic venue will again be filled with the sounds of freedom at the Let Freedom Ring concert.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 10: Free the Slaves experts will be speaking at the Brooklyn Historical Society at a free event called “Fighting Modern-Day Slavery.” The event will feature a sneak peak at a new exhibit that chronicles unsung heroes of the abolition movement: “Brooklyn Abolitionists in Pursuit of Freedom.”
The panelists include:
- Tina Frundt, a sex trafficking survivor from Chicago who now rescues young people from slavery on the streets of Washington, D.C. She runs a telephone hotline and recovery shelter staffed by survivors like herself. Tina’s personal experiences provide special insight for providing rescue and rehabilitation services for trafficking victims.
- Timothy Patrick McCarthy, a lecturer on history, literature and public policy, and director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard University Kennedy School. He is a historian of social movements who specializes in slavery and abolition, media culture and communications, and the politics of race, gender, and sexuality in American culture.
- Maurice I. Middleberg, executive director of Free the Slaves, who oversees the organization’s wide range of innovative anti-trafficking initiatives around the globe. These include frontline community-based projects in hotspot countries to liberate slaves and transform the economic, political and social systems that allow slavery to persist – as well as guiding the group’s policy advocacy, corporate engagement and awareness-raising programs inside the United States.
- Moderator: Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York
Our thanks to Plymouth Church and the Brooklyn Historical Society for making these events possible.
What can you do to end modern-day slavery? Take action in January by spreading the word that slavery can be overcome. Here are some ideas for how you can help:
Tell your relatives, coworkers, classmates, colleagues and neighbors. Play a Free the Slaves video at your place of worship. Pick a Free the Slaves book for your book club. Write to your local newspaper editor to request more coverage of human trafficking. Write to your local, state and federal elected representatives and ask them to support funding for projects that prosecute traffickers and assist slavery survivors. Visit the Free the Slaves Facebook page and Twitter feed, then like us, share our posts and tweets, follow us and join the conversation. And raise funds for the movement any way you can: see our Fundraiser and House Party Preparation Guide for easy-to-follow tips.
If you’re in New York City or South Florida, there are major events planned for January.
On January 10th Free the Slaves experts will be speaking at the Brooklyn Historical Society at a free event called “Fighting Modern-Day Slavery.” The event will feature a sneak peak at a new exhibit that chronicles unsung heroes of the abolition movement: Brooklyn Abolitionists in Pursuit of Freedom.
On January 11th Plymouth Church in Brooklyn will be hosting a benefit concert for Free the Slaves. The Impressions, Naiomi Shelton, members of The Dap-Kings, The Gospel Queens and the Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church are scheduled to perform.
On January 30th Broward College in Fort Lauderdale will host a day-long event entitled “Human Trafficking: Exposing the Crisis, Devising Strategies and Solutions.” The event will feature political, economic, academic and human rights experts who will examine how law enforcement and multinational businesses can help eradicate slavery in the U.S., Caribbean and Latin America.
Mark your calendars!
It’s been quite a year at Free the Slaves, especially for Executive Director Maurice Middleberg. He has spent much of 2013 on the road visiting our front line programs in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. His meetings with slavery survivors and activists have led to an important insight.
“Slaveholders and traffickers are astonishingly vulnerable, while their intended victims can be amazingly powerful,” Maurice says. “This is our great discovery.”
You can see Maurice’s New Year’s video message now online.
“Education, organization, advocacy and protection. These are the tools that tumble the walls of slavery,” Maurice says. “Our goal is to deploy these tools far and wide.”
As 2013 comes to an end, and 2014 begins with Slavery Awareness Month in January, our thanks to all friends of Free the Slaves for your dedicated support.
Happy New Year!