Speaker: United States covered up abolitionist papers

Ryan Bradley

For more than a decade author and historian, Keletso E. Atkins has been working to reveal what she believes is a United States cover-up dating from a century ago.

Atkins, a professor at the University of Minnesota, said she believes the government did everything in its power to suppress abolitionist movements in the years leading up to the Civil War.

“America experienced the greatest peace time suppression of freedom of speech and expression (in the period) leading up to the Civil War,” said Atkins, an associate professor and chairwoman of the department of African-American studies and African studies at the University of Minnesota.

Atkins spoke Monday afternoon to a small group of Northwestern professors in a conference room in the African studies department.

Atkins began her lecture with a brief but in-depth history of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. She said in the pre-bellum period, the board fought for the freedom of indigenous peoples overseas in places like South Africa, but the U.S. government oppressed an entire race at home.

When South Africans discovered the social injustices occurring in the United States, they were shocked by the fact that American missionaries were fighting for their freedom, Atkins said.

Atkins continued with a discussion on mission presses. She said these newspapers bolstered support for the board’s cause and helped them solicit money from U.S. donors — but Atkins said the government censored the papers because some information could have dissuaded Southerners from giving money.

The presses were an example of the United States’ suppression of the abolitionist movement, Atkins said.

Atkins mentioned several theories on the vast communications network within the African community linked, in large part, by African sailors.

“The Africans’ understanding of the wide world is much better than we imagine,” Atkins said.

She noted that African slaves at the Cape of Good Hope were inspired by slave uprisings as far away as the North Atlantic. She said the news must have been spread by the numerous African sailors and whalers stationed all over the world.

Besides talking about slavery, Atkins also spoke about her book on the South African experience from 1699-1865. After 10 years of research, Atkins is still working on the book, which deals with a number of topics including Zulu Christian converts and the whaling culture off the Cape of Good Hope.

“This study could keep me going well into my 80s. … It is not a definitive work,” Atkins said.

David Schoenbrun, a Weinberg associate professor who was responsible for bringing Atkins to the university, said Atkins’ speech was interesting. He said she gave a “fascinating talk (that) pointed out history of black culture that runs much more deeply than we imagine.”

Dylan Penningroth, a visiting assistant professor said he was fortunate to witness Atkins speak.

“She’s a real star in literature, so I’m lucky to see her in action,” Pennigroth said.