by Nicola Raimes and Nicola Phillips
Last month Royal Holloway launched the Women Inspire campaign and one of our most inspiring alumna from Bedford College (the first Higher Education College for women which opened in 1849) was Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894). She was an African-American anti-slavery campaigner with a passion for education and equality who spoke to huge crowds all over Britain and practiced medicine in Italy. Remond is frequently commemorated online in America and a plaque has been erected in Rome where she died. In 1861 The English Woman’s Journal included an autobiographical article in their ‘Lives of Distinguished Women’ feature but as yet there is nothing material to commemorate her achievements here in the UK where she became a naturalized citizen in 1865.
Remond grew up a free Black woman in Salem, Massachusetts, where her brother Charles Lennox Remond was also a prominent slavery abolitionist. By 1857 Remond had been appointed as a travelling lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. An impassioned and accomplished speaker – she was just sixteen when she made her first anti-slavery speech – Remond came to Britain to spread the abolitionist message in January 1859.
As well as wanting to serve the anti-slavery cause here, Remond also sought freedom from discrimination in racially segregated America. She was equally determined to pursue the further education denied to her in America as a Black woman. Over the next two years she combined an extensive lecture tour of the British Isles with her studies at Bedford College because:
“My strongest desire through life has been to be educated. I found the most exquisite pleasure in reading and as we had no library, I read every book which came in my way, and I longed for more. Again and again mother would endeavor to have us placed in some private school, but being colored we were refused.”
‘A Colored Lady Lecturer’, The English Woman’s Journal (June 1861)
A number of Black American abolitionists came to Britain in the 1850s and 1860s, but Remond’s contribution stands apart for several reasons. Most notably, she was the first woman in her own right to address the question of slavery before mass audiences here. In contrast to the fugitive slave Ellen Craft who appeared before audiences but did not speak, Remond challenged the prevailing notion of Black women as helpless victims. Here was a free Black woman whose calm, forceful delivery belied the often emotive appeals she made to white women on behalf of suffering female slaves, and was able to cut across the partisan divisions that plagued the British anti-slavery movement at that time.
Women were integral to the development of a transatlantic anti-slavery movement from the late 1830s and it was through this network that Sarah Parker Remond met Elizabeth Jesser Reid, philanthropist, founder of Bedford College and keen opponent of slavery. In October 1859 Remond enrolled at Bedford College and boarded with Jesser Reid at her home in nearby Grenville Street.
Thought to have been the first Black student at the College, Remond studied a range of subjects, including arithmetic, ancient history and Latin. However, by the third term she had enrolled in far fewer classes and an addendum to Remond’s College records hints at the challenges she might have been facing both as a mature student and as a touring anti-slavery speaker:
“These classes were found to be quite unsuitable owing to the peculiar circumstances and age of the student.”
Register of Student Courses BC AR/202/1/1
During 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War, Remond urged Britain to oppose the Confederacy and to use cotton from India, rather than slave-produced imports from America. She supported the American antislavery press and was active in the Ladies’ London Emancipation Society founded by her friend and women’s rights activist Clementia Taylor.
In the aftermath of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion Remond wrote to the London Daily News expressing her outrage at the treatment of Black Jamaicans by British troops, and citing a change for the worse in British attitudes towards Black people. It has been suggested that Remond was so disappointed by this change that she left Britain to make a new life in Italy. However, Remond’s application for British naturalization offers an alternative explanation. These documents demonstrate both her wish to settle permanently in Britain and her intention to visit Italy temporarily.
We can only speculate about Remond’s subsequent decision to settle permanently in Italy, rather than in Britain. She already had contacts there through her friendship with the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini and her support for the unification movement. Perhaps the opportunity to study medicine was a factor. Remond qualified as a doctor in Florence in 1868.
Following her death in 1894, Remond was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome where a plaque in her memory was installed in 2013. Remond stayed with Clementia Taylor at Aubrey House, London, where a plaque naming Taylor and other radicals who associated there has been erected but Remond is not listed among them. We are currently discussing ideas about how best to commemorate Remond’s remarkable contribution to anti-slavery and anti-racism in Great Britain, and her lifelong battle to gain an education. If you have any suggestions please do contact us.
Nicola Raimes is an MA Public History graduate from Royal Holloway and producer of a series of podcasts about women and slavery for Historic England. She was interviewed for the article in The Independent, ‘Slavery: How Women’s Key Role in Abolition has yet to receive the attention it deserves’.
Nicola Phillips is the lead editor for this Blog and Co-Directs the MA in Public History and The Bedford Centre for the History of Women at Royal Holloway.