Irish historian Christine Kinealy discussed the role of Black women—and Irish independence—in the abolitionist movement in a lecture hosted by NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House.
On Friday, NYU’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study welcomed Christine Kinealy, Irish historian and founder of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, for a lecture titled “’Be Strikingly Genteel’: Two Black Women Abolitionists in Ireland, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Sarah Parker Remond.” The event was part of a three-week academic conference, “Where Do We Go from Here? Revisiting Black Irish Relations and Responding to a Transnational Moment,” hosted by the University’s Glucksman Ireland House.
“Where Do We Go From Here?”—the conference’s title borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 book—aims to examine the complex histories of both Black and Irish communities in the United States throughout the last four centuries, focusing on questions of race, ethnicity, inequality, and identity. In addition to the lecture from Kinealy, the conference, organized by Kim DaCosta (Gallatin School of Individualized Study) and Miriam Nyhan Grey (Glucksman Ireland House), features scholars from NYU, UC Berkeley, and Trinity College Dublin, and remarks from Ireland’s head of government Micheál Martin T.D. The event is held in partnership with NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House, the home of its Irish and Irish-American Studies program.
Kinealy’s lecture in particular, “Be Strikingly Genteel,” discussed two prominent Black American abolitionists, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Sarah Parker Redmond, and their experiences traveling to Ireland as part of their work.
Approximately 90 Black abolitionists visited Great Britain between 1791 and 1861, and as many as one third made a stop in Ireland. While many were fleeing the United States’ Fugitive Slave Laws, others traveled with the mission of building a transatlantic movement that sought to end enslavement globally. In her lecture, Kinealy emphasized this transatlantic connection, built on a foundation of shared sentiments between Black abolitionists experiencing the system of American slavery and Irish people experiencing endemic poverty and famine under English colonial rule. While Ireland is rarely the focus of historical research surrounding abolition, Irish abolitionists were a powerful force, once described by Frederick Douglass as the “most ardent” members of the movement. Kinealy’s lecture, exploring this relationship between Black abolitionists and Irish nationalists, was book ended by the remarkable life stories of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Sarah Parker Remond, and their immense contributions to the abolitionist movement.
While Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, one of the most popular Black performers of the mid-19th century, is rarely seen as a prominent abolitionist figure, Kinealy’s lecture highlights the important role she played in the international movement. In an era defined by minstrel shows, Taylor Greenfield’s magnetic musical performances were powerful and unmistakably abolitionist, a display of Black agency in the face of misogynoir and political subjugation. Born into enslavement in Mississippi, Greenfield was emancipated in childhood after her family’s slaveholder, also named Elizabeth Greenfield, converted to the Quaker church and made the decision to dedicate the rest of her life to the abolitionist cause. Taylor Greenfield had incredible musical skills, but as a free Black woman, was never seriously considered by music teachers. Instead, she built a career performing at private parties before moving to Buffalo to perform full-time. While her decision to work with manager Colonel J.H. Wood—a white man and known supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act who refused to allow people of color into Greenfield’s performances—garnered scrutiny from others in the abolitionist movement, she quickly rose to prominence as a self-taught singer and performer.
Eventually, Taylor Greenfield moved to New York City in 1853, where she dropped Wood as a manager before performing a series of concerts at Metropolitan Hall, to over 4,000 audience members. However, these performances did not come without their own cloud of controversies. Not only had Wood’s segregationist audience rule remained in place, meaning Black patrons were not allowed into Greenfield’s concerts, but the venue itself received an avalanche of white supremacist threats for its decision to book a Black performer. It was this incident that reified Greenfield’s commitment to desegregating her art, pushing her to become involved with Black institutions in New York like the Home of Aged Colored Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum.
After the New York concerts, Greenfield toured in Great Britain, where she expanded her set list of classical music to include explicitly abolitionist works, including the song “Vision of a Negro Slave,” which discussed the horrific everyday conditions of slavery. Soon after, she traveled to Dublin, where she had already become a celebrity, and debuted a second abolitionist work, an original song titled “I Am Free” in which she performed both parts of a duet between an enslaved person and a slaveholder. The song cemented her celebrity status in Ireland, where she continued to meet great success.
While Taylor Greenfield’s dedication to the abolitionist cause certainly did not originate from her tour of Ireland, it was during her time there that she encountered many allies and a newfound sense of agency. Upon returning to the United States, Taylor Greenfield insisted her concert audiences be desegregated, and arranged and participated in a number of charity concerts raising money for Black institutions in New York. In this second half of her career, Greenfield became what Kinealy described as a “feature of the abolitionist circuit,” often performing at events where Frederick Douglass and other prominent Black abolitionists were speaking in order to draw a wider audience. While Taylor Greenfield is rarely remembered as a central figure in the abolitionist movement, her work notably defied contemporary orthodoxies about artistry and creativity, challenging perceptions of Black womanhood and the limits of the movement.
While Kinealy chose to focus on Greenfield as an abolitionist whose artistic contributions to the movement often go overlooked, she also placed emphasis on the ways that the intersection of racism and misogyny meant that even Black women’s more straightforward contributions to the movement, like the lectures given by Sarah Parker Remond, often go overlooked in historical studies of the era.
Unlike Greenfield, Sarah Parker Remond was born free, to a family of successful entrepreneurs of and active abolitionists in Massachusetts. The Remond family’s money, education, and position allowed them great social and political influence, and Sarah Remond’s older brother, Charles Lenox Remond, was a prominent abolitionist lecturer in both the United States and Europe even before her career began. In fact, years before Sarah’s first lectures in Ireland, Charles Remond had traveled to Dublin in an effort to get the signatures of Irish citizens on a petition appealing to Irish Americans to support the abolitionist cause.
Sarah Remond’s lecturing career began as a teenager, and her incredible talent for public speaking quickly earned her an appointment to William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society, where she often lectured alongside white abolitionist and feminist Abby Kelley. She spent much of her career lecturing alongside her brother, speaking on abolition, discrimination, and women’s suffrage.
Much like Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, despite her status as a majorly influential celebrity, Remond was subject to the intersection of misogyny, overlooking her contributions to the abolitionist cause, and intense racism and segregationist pushback, attempting to force her out of white spaces. In 1853, she successfully sued a theatre in Boston after she was forcibly removed for refusing to sit in segregated seats. Not only was she awarded $500 in damages, but the theatre was forced to put a permanent end to its segregationist practices.
In 1858, Remond made the decision to tour Great Britain, as her brother had done years before, garnering support for the abolitionist cause. Despite the fact that by the late 1850s, it had become a common practice for prominent abolitionists to tour the region, Remond still expressed her fear that white supremacy was far from dead in the region, writing, “no matter how I go, the spirit of prejudice will meet me.”
Remond arrived in Dublin in 1859, to a city still recovering from the devastating Great Famine and experiencing a new wave of nationalism and movement for independence. Throughout March 1859, Remond gave 11 lectures as a guest of the Dublin Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, where she made an impassioned appeal to white feminists to support abolition and the rights of enslaved women, garnering international acclaim and a bastion of new supporters. Remond continued to lecture throughout Ireland, her wariness of the approaching civil war becoming increasingly apparent. By the end of her tour, it had become clear to Remond that the political conditions of the United States had become so dire that it would never be safe for her to return, and she relocated permanently to London. However, even from England, she remained a powerful force in the American abolitionist movement, exposing the United States for denying her a visa to visit France on the claim that she was not a citizen, and garnering international attention towards the practice when the French government condemned the United States’ actions. As the Civil War began, Remond became one of a group of women abolitionists who called for a peaceful end to slavery and surrender of the Confederacy and continued to advocate the Union cause in England. While she remained an active member of the abolitionist movement, she also continued her education, becoming one of the first women of color in England to finish medical school and become a doctor. Not only was Remond a pioneer in the abolitionist and feminist movements, but she was an expert and maneuvering the media, and a champion of oppressed people around the world.
Kinealy also examined the imagery produced surrounding Greenfield and Remond: the reasons why two women, famous globally during the explosion of photography as a medium, were rarely pictured, and the impact this had on their public and historiographical images. Because they were so rarely photographed, much of the women’s images, particularly Greenfield’s, were built from descriptions of them written by white abolitionists, creating highly racialized and gendered results. Even the most positive descriptions of Remond, from fellow abolitionists, focused on her “gentleness” over her content. Similarly, in a letter from which the title of the lecture originates, white abolitionist Elizabeth Smith Miller wrote to Greenfield at the beginning of her rise to fame, advising her to keep up a modest, conservative appearance in order to gain the respect of her white audience, telling her that “in the midst of all the prejudice against those of your color, your appearance should be strikingly genteel.” Through this pattern, Kinealy drew a connection between the misogynoir faced by Greenfield and Remond and their general exclusion from historical narratives, including their lack of photographs.
Kinealy concluded her lecture with a focus on how, in the face of the erasure that plagued their careers, Greenfield and Remond became expert navigators of both the media and international politics, and made invaluable contributions to the abolitionist movement. While their travels to Ireland are a story not often considered in historical examinations of the movement, it was there that both women found kindred spirits in a fight to establish agency under oppressive colonial rule.
Ultimately, Kinealy’s lecture told the story of two cultures, both fighting for freedom under regimes built on their subjugation, and the extraordinary lives of two pioneering women whose stories are not told enough.
Friday’s lecture was presented by NYU’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study and the Glucksman Ireland House. It was part of the first of three broadcasts of the “Where Do We Go From Here?” conference, which will continue on November 12 and 19.
“Where Do We Go From Here?” via Bwog Staffer