“Abigail”- Maya Rylke-Friedman
Abigail died in Paris trying to gain her freedom (Jones, 2021). Abigail was a slave to Sarah Livingston, who married John Jay in 1774 (Benton & Peters, 2018). John Jay was one of America’s Founding Fathers, a Governor of New York, and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Benton & Peters, 2018). Abigail traveled to France with the Jay family in 1783. John Jay along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams signed the Treaty of Paris, which settled the American Revolutionary War, freeing the United States from Britain. Abby was said to be a very attentive servant, but there are few records of her. Historians and the public have no inclination of what Abby may have looked like, either tall or short, slim or round. Abby went with the Jay family to Paris while they were officially marking America’s independence. While there, Abby had befriended a washerwoman who promised to employ and pay her. One day, Abby left the Jay residence and never returned. Sarah Jay pleaded with Benjamin Franklin for the police to search for her, and Benjamin Franklin’s nephew, Temple Franklin, requested that the police find Abby, though at that time France did not recognize slavery and had no reason to recapture a slave (JEFF HAWKES Staff, 2008). When the police found her, they sent her to La Petite Force, where she stayed there, fell ill, and died (Jones, 2021).
When Abby was thrown into jail she was given the choice of staying in prison or returning to her mistress, Sarah Jay. Abby chose to stay in prison. Why would she choose to stay in jail where conditions were most certainly worse than living with the Jay family? Perhaps because in both senses, she was unfree. Perhaps she rathered dying in prison not as a slave, as opposed to living owned by someone else.
Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, is an African-American woman who journeyed to Paris to discover more of Abigail’s life and legacy. She looked for her grave, but the cemetery where she is possibly buried no longer exists. There is no monument to Abigail in Paris, nor are there many memorials to slavery in general. In the Jardin du Luxembourg, there is a sculpture named Le Cri, l’Écrit (The Cry, the Writing), which has the word “libre” (free) engraved in it and acknowledges France’s role in perpetuating slavery. Each year on May 10, France pays tribute to the enslaved and their struggle for freedom and rights. They honor those who were enslaved as among France’s founders. While this is a positive step for those who were enslaved and discriminated against, it is still long overdue for Abigail and the many people like her (Jones, 2021).
Slavery and Racism
Though John Jay was the owner of many slaves like Abigail, he was also said to be a fierce advocate for abolition and justice. Horace Greeley, a journalist, reported in 1854 that “to Chief Justice Jay may be attributed, more than to any other man, the abolition of Negro bondage in this state” (Benton & Peters, 2018). However, can a slaveholder such as John Jay be a genuine advocate for abolition? It seems to be highly paradoxical. Jay was one of the founders of the New York Manumission Society and wrote in their founding document, “it is our duty, therefore, both as free citizens and Christians, not only to regard with compassion the injustice done to those among us who are held as slaves, but to endeavor by lawful ways and means to enable them to share equally with us, in that civil and religious liberty with which an indulgent Providence has blessed these States, and to which those, our brethren are, by nature, as much entitled as ourselves” (Benton & Peters, 2018). How can a man who seemed to be against slavery and for freedom and abolition be such a hypocrite and not only own slaves, but imprison and punish them? Could that just have been the times?
The French slave trade was the third largest behind the Portuguese and the British (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2022). The French took about 1,318,000 Africans as slaves during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The French sent most of their slaves to Caribbean colonies (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2022).
France formally abolished slavery in 1794 (Collins, 2020). Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean, received many slaves and had a large plantation economy. Toussaint Louverture was enslaved on a sugar plantation but was later emancipated. He led a slave revolt and defeated the French, Spanish and British. Louverture authored an abolitionist constitution for Saint-Domingue stating that “here, all men are born, live, and die free and French.” He emphasized French identity for Haitians. Some hold Loverture and Haitian revolutionaries as some of the ultimate Lumières who took ideals of “liberté, égalité, and fraternité further than their European contemporaries were willing or able to, and envisioning, with racial equality” (Collins, 2020). Additionally, Toussaint Louverture “embodied the ideals of the French Revolution and, then, the Haitian Revolution, which inspired the modern anti-colonial movement all over the world, France has not seen him and his fight as indispensable elements of its national narrative” (Collins, 2020).
Napoleon Bonaparte later overpowered Louverture and reinstated slavery in Haiti, however, Haitians rose up and established Haiti as the world’s first free Black republic (Collins, 2020). In 1825 France imposed a massive debt on Haiti to pay because of the war damages and to compensate former slaveholders. How does this act encapsulate the ideals of the French Revolution? Would not Frenchmen have these ideas fresh in their minds and not punish another country for gaining independence of their own?
France and the United States are uncomfortably bound together in the brutality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many French officials are eager to glorify their struggle for human rights, yet they ignore the history of slavery. While the American and French Revolutions were idealistic movements regarding human rights expansion, they overlooked so many groups of people. Much of Europe and America’s history is whitewashed, failing to mention slavery and the struggles of people of color (Jones, 2021).
There are exhibits, monuments, and plaques dedicated to the memory of the Founding Fathers such as the site of Hôtel d’York, where John Jay, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin finalized the Treaty of Paris. There is a museum in Paris that had a detailed exhibit dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, with no mention of Abigail. Researcher, Amanda Kemp, flew to Paris, advocating for the exhibit to convey the whole picture: the great, historic accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin, but also the struggles of countless slaves. Kemp wanted to pay homage to Abby and her fight for freedom. Since Abby was not included in the exhibit, Kemp recited Abby’s story to museumgoers on the sidewalk. This was the first time many people heard about Abby and her story. Kemp says that she does not do this simply for scholarly honesty, but also a “desire to heal. The wound of slavery has an ongoing legacy, but we’re stuck because we haven’t fully known our past” (JEFF HAWKES Staff, 2008).
In 2001, French lawmakers passed the Taubira Law, which labeled the slave trade and slavery as “crimes against humanity” and mandated that school curriculums include it (Collins, 2020). Years after the law was passed, France’s education system saw major progress in updating its historiography, training educators, and revising textbooks. However, these reforms faced opposition as seen in 2005 when the French legislature required schools to emphasize the “positive role” of colonialism. This measure was later rescinded. In 2006, Former President Jacques Chirac instituted an annual commemoration of slavery. He also had a nonbinding suggestion for lycée, French secondary school, to teach about Haitian independence, which while a positive suggestion, is not as effective as mandating it. However, Chirac gave a speech “invoking Louverture alongside such figures of resistance as Solitude, Cimendef, and Dimitile. ‘Too few French people know these names, … However, they are part of the history of France’” (Collins, 2020). Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former Prime Minister of France, said, “when we discuss the history of slavery, we get the impression that we should almost apologize for talking about it” (Collins, 2020). This climate of slavery being a taboo subject is destructive and detrimental to healing the wounds of it and the discrimination that continues. Marc Lienafa, a teacher of history and geography at a vocational high school near Caen believes that “to put a veil on this colonial history is to nourish resentments and to encourage people to withdraw into identity” (Collins, 2020).
Paris lacks sufficient memorials to slavery. Former French President, François Hollande, said that “France has a memory of abolition, but not of slavery” (McAuley, 2016). France still has many institutional links to slavery. This lack of acknowledgment has created a great amount of resentment among French-Africans because there is a larger presence of Holocaust remembrance than slavery (McAuley, 2016).
Former President Hollande stated, “When it comes to slavery, we don’t teach the same history to all the children of France,” (Collins, 2020). An average French pupil completes his/her high-school education without learning much about France’s history of slave-holding and the Haitian revolution for independence. This is similar to America’s struggle with coming to terms with its slaveholding past and teaching about it in schools.
The governor of Florida, Ronald DeSantis, has been pushing legislation that prohibits the discussion of “sensitive” topics such as racism and sexual orientation. Many people across America have been debating whether or not public schools should include lessons about Critical Race Theory (CRT). However, many individuals have no idea what CRT is. Many parents think that CRT is teaching white children to hate the fact they are white and to hate America. However, this is most definitely not true, and there are vast amounts of misinformation circulating. Critical Race Theory is a graduate-level concept that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies, and not necessarily in individuals (LastWeekTonight, 2022). Thus, grade-school children will not be learning CRT, but by banning this concept, students and teachers will not be able to confront and speak honestly about America’s racist history and how that has continued to affect individuals today. Advocates for CRT want America to be the equal and harmonious society it has been idealized to be. Some believe that CRT is going to dismantle the United States Constitution and patriotism.
Voucher schools trace back to Brown v. Board of Education when schools were becoming desegregated, and white families wanted to move their children to segregated schools. Florida has tax revenue that goes towards these voucher schools (LastWeekTonight, 2022). These schools typically offer a sanitized version of United States History. For instance, there was a history textbook entitled America: Land I Love which downplayed the horrors of slavery (LastWeekTonight, 2022). DeSantis has been advocating for the Stop Woke Act, which would prohibit discussion that may make students feel uncomfortable, guilty, or anguish because of their race or sex in public schools, which essentially means students cannot discuss slavery and racism because that can make white children uncomfortable. The Stop Woke Act would give parents the right to sue if their child is being taught CRT. However, we should not ban these conversations. We should learn how to have them better. Jean-Marc Ayrault warns, “when we evade these questions, when we hide them, when we forget them, there’s a risk that they resurge…If we try to cover up this history, it comes back and it often comes back in a more violent manner” (Collins, 2020).
My Connection to This Subject
Many individuals including myself think of the white people that made France what it is, but there are countless people of color whose stories have not been widely shared that have molded France. After learning about Abigail’s life, it is saddening that she does not have a last name, and if she did, it would be that of her slave owners. I do not want Abigail to just be defined as a slave because I am sure that she and many others like her would like to be remembered for their inner complexities as well as their collective struggle for freedom.
Because of Abigail’s life and strife for freedom, and many others like her, individuals cannot own others as their property. She demonstrated that people of color, females of color, and everyone, in general, deserve to have their autonomy, opportunities, and the right to life, liberty, and happiness.
Race and slavery have been sensitive topics for years, but the opposition to talking about such subjects is severely detrimental. Children and adults alike should have exposure to honest conversations about the reality of slavery, racism, and colonialism. Otherwise, stories like Abigail’s will be brushed over, ignored, and forgotten about.
America: Land I Love Digital Textbook. (2019). Abeka. https://www.abeka.com/ABekaOnline/BookDescription.aspx?sbn=302945&childSbn=314498
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Collins, L. (2020, December 3). The Haitian Revolution and the Hole in French High-School History. The New Yorker; The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-haitian-revolution-and-the-hole-in-french-high-school-history
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JEFF HAWKES Staff. (2008, April 15). A life hidden in shadows of slavery, revealed. LancasterOnline. https://lancasteronline.com/opinion/a-life-hidden-in-shadows-of-slavery-revealed/article_2de50804-aae9-55c0-9749-e7f6143c5b67.html
Jones, M. (2021, November 23). Enslaved to a Founding Father, She Sought Freedom in France. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/23/travel/john-jay-paris-abigail-slavery.html
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1000Museums. (2020, November 24). Portrait of Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803). 1000Museums. https://www.1000museums.com/shop/art/giradin-portrait-of-toussaint-louverture-1743-1803/