Professor Maurice Jackson Sheds New Light on an Early Abolitionist
Professor Maurice Jackson is an activist as well as a teacher. (Photo: Claire Callagy)
By Akoto Ofori-Atta
With the election of the first African-American president, many in the United States see renewed evidence and hope that progress is being made in erasing the ugly effects of racism. Professor of history Maurice Jackson
notes that historical figures of the 19th and 20th century, like Abraham Lincoln, who supported race equality must be largely credited with making this chapter of history possible. His latest research project, however, uncovers the story of an even earlier pioneer of racial equality: Anthony Benezet.
Jackson’s research on the life of 18th century abolitionist Anthony Benezet culminated in a book entitled Let This Voice be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism, in which Jackson explores Benezet’s progressive anti-slavery influence on Europe, Africa and the Americas. Often regarded as the father of the first anti-slavery movement, Benezet’s story had long gone untold with history books focusing upon stories of more well known abolitionists like Fredrick Douglass. Jackson reveals in his book, however, that it was Benezet whose anti-slavery critique and influence crossed national boundaries.
“Benezet was really the first one to unite people in America, France and England through the development of an anti-slavery rhetoric,” said Jackson.
Benezet was born in 1713 to a Huguenot, or Protestant, family in Saint-Quentin, France. Because of the persecution of those adhering to the Protestant faith after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Benezet’s family went into exile and relocated to England. There, Benezet joined the Religious Society of Friends, whose members are also referred to as Quakers. He moved to America and settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1731, where he began to see the incongruities between the transatlantic slave trade and Christianity.
“Benezet realized early on that the African slave trade was inhumane,” explained Jackson. “He also concluded that if America was going to be a nation under God then it needed to recognize Africans as free human beings.”
Much of Jackson’s research on Benezet’s philosophies involves African “travel narratives” which are detailed accounts from Europeans who had chronicled their visits to Africa in the 18th century. Jackson said that Benezet, who had never visited Africa himself, carefully studied these accounts. While travel narratives ranged widely—with some accounts claiming that Africans were natural savages and intellectually incapable, Jackson said that Benezet had an uncanny ability to “find one grain of truth in a body of lies.”
“He read people’s accounts of their journey to the continent and determined that despite people’s negative reactions to Africans, they had a right to resist slavery because they were human [beings] like everyone else,” Jackson explained. Benezet coupled his reading of “travel narratives” with readings of philosophers, including mid-eighteenth century Scottish moral philosophers like Francis Hutcheson.
Benezet also founded an institution of learning for those of African descent called the African Free School in Philadelphia, where future abolitionists studied and further disseminated Benezet’s views to the world. Benezet’s other significant contribution to anti-slavery dialogue was his influence on some of the most recognizable figures in American history, such as Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and John Wesley. Benezet’s ideas spread throughout their political circles, which, according to Jackson, had a profound effect on the course of slave history in America.
As a long-time political activist, Jackson naturally had a deep interest in Benezet’s story. Prior to completing his graduate studies in history at Georgetown University, Jackson was an inner city community organizer in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In the 1970s, Jackson went on to work as an intern for Congressman Augustus Hawkins, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. From there, Jackson immersed himself in D.C. activism, working on prison outreach and civil rights. His efforts won him induction into The Washington D.C. Hall of Fame on April 19th, 2009 for politics and government; a first for a professor to gain recognition in that category.
“My induction was special,” said Jackson. “I never sought recognition for my work, but because my meager efforts have been recognized by the Hall of Fame, it will open doors and allow me to do even more to help the people of D.C.”
Jackson’s focus on the early history of African-Americans is evident in his courses at Georgetown. He has recently been promoted to Associate Professor of History, where the topics of his courses include race and revolution in the Atlantic world, African-American intellectual history, social and labor movements, and the history of Washington, D.C. The last will be the subject of his next research project, which he hopes will be the first of its kind: a social, political, and cultural history of African Americans in D.C. from 1790 to the present.
“A truly thoughtful history of blacks living in the district does not really exist,” Jackson noted. “This research will tell that story.”
As Benezet fought to prove the humanity of blacks, Jackson has also dedicated his research to the continued awareness of African-American contributions to the nation’s narrative. “I hope my legacy is a body of work that will reveal the importance and relevance of the African-American story.”
If were not a professor and had the talent, I would be a jazz musician by night and a novelist by day—and practice my pool game.