During the period leading up to the Civil War, Springfield was a locus of abolitionist sentiment and activity. The best-known abolitionist to reside in Springfield was John Brown, who went on to lead an ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in an attempt to incite a slave rebellion.
The movement to resist slavery went beyond John Brown, however. Springfield was a key station on the Underground Railroad in the Northeast, providing a stop-over for escaping slaves making their way further north to Vermont and Canada. Local businesspeople and respected citizens, often risking their standing in the community, organized groups to aid and defend escaping slaves.
While many of these white citizens actively pursued the end of slavery, episodes of cross-racial cooperation were the exception. Indeed, few white Springfield citizens associated with African-Americans in public or in private. John Brown's willingness to associate with the nascent black community in Springfield stands out as a special case. Nevertheless, in spite of racial hostilities, former slaves became successful businessmen and civic leaders.
Numerous soldiers from the Connecticut River Valley served and gave their lives in the Civil War. The diaries and letters of these soldiers fighting to preserve the Union offer a telling view of the true feelings of many white Americans. Although some opposed the institution of slavery, many soldiers questioned why they should risk their lives to free a people they viewed as inferior.
The story of Springfield's role in resisting slavery illustrates an early attempt at a pluralist approach to reshaping the social, political, and legal landscape of the nation. Such efforts often failed to result in true racial tolerance or integration, however, and the stories from this period illustrate the many obstacles to creating a truly pluralist society. Still, the abolitionists' efforts had a lasting impact not only on Springfield but on the nation as a whole.
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