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DeBaptiste, George (1814?–22 February 1875), abolitionist and businessman, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the son of John DeBaptiste, a businessman, and Frances “Franky” (maiden name unknown). Although the details of DeBaptiste’s early life are uncertain, he appears to have traveled to Richmond, Virginia, as a youth, where he learned to barber and where, perhaps in 1829, as a free black, he first helped a slave escape. While still in Virginia, he married his first wife, Maria Lucinda Lee, a slave, and bought her freedom. DeBaptiste subsequently remarried and had two children; his second wife’s name is unknown. As a young man he demonstrated strong loyalty to his family, who remained in Fredericksburg. On two separate occasions in the 1820s he financially secured the property of two sisters when they faced significant debt (Fitzgerald, p. 53)....

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Ford, Barney Launcelot (1822–14 December 1902), conductor on the Underground Railroad, Negro suffrage lobbyist, and real estate baron, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of a Mr. Darington (given name unknown), a slaveholder and plantation owner, and Phoebe (surname unknown), one of Darington’s slaves. Given simply the name “Barney” at birth, he adopted the name Barney Launcelot Ford as an adult to please his soon-to-be wife and to provide himself with a “complete” name....

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Gibbs, Mifflin Wistar (17 April 1823–11 July 1915), businessman, politician, and race leader, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Jonathan C. Gibbs, a Methodist minister, and Maria Jackson. His parents were free blacks. His father died when Mifflin was seven years old, and his mother was an invalid. As a teenager, Mifflin attended the Philomathean Institute, a black men’s literary society, and, like his brother ...

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Parker, John P. (1827–30 January 1900), African-American abolitionist and entrepreneur, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of a slave mother and white father, whose names are unknown. At the age of eight, Parker was sold as a slave to an agent in Richmond, where he in turn was purchased by a physician from Mobile, Alabama. While employed as a house servant for the physician, Parker learned to read and write. In Mobile he was apprenticed to work in furnaces and iron manufactures as well as for a plasterer. Beaten by the plasterer, Parker attempted to escape, only to be captured aboard a northbound riverboat....

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Gerrit Smith. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-15401).

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Smith, Gerrit (06 March 1797–28 December 1874), land speculator and abolitionist, was born in Utica, New York, the son of Peter Smith, a land speculator, and Elizabeth Livingston. Smith resided practically his entire life in Peterboro, Madison County, New York, where his father operated a land speculation business. A former partner of ...

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Still, William (07 October 1821–14 July 1902), abolitionist and businessman, was born near Medford in Burlington County, New Jersey, the youngest of the eighteen children of Levin Still, a farmer, and Charity (maiden name unknown). Still’s father, a Maryland slave, purchased his own freedom and changed his name from Steel to Still. His mother escaped from slavery and changed her given name from Cidney to Charity. With a minimum of formal schooling, William studied on his own, reading whatever was available to him. He left home at age twenty to work at odd jobs and as a farmhand. In 1844 he moved to Philadelphia where he found employment as a handyman, and in 1847 he married Letitia George. They had four children....

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Walker, David (1796?–06 August 1830), used-clothing dealer and political writer, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son probably of a free black woman and possibly of a slave father. Almost nothing is known about either parent; only a little more is known about Walker’s years in the South. Walker was born in a town where by 1800 African Americans predominated demographically over whites by more than two to one. Their influence on the town and the region was profound. Most labor—skilled or unskilled—was performed by black slaves who were the foundation of the region’s key industries: naval stores production, lumbering, rice cultivation, building construction, and shipping. The Methodist church in Wilmington was largely the creation of the local black faithful. The skill and resourcefulness of the African Americans amid their enslavement deeply impressed Walker....

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Wright, Elizur (12 February 1804–21 November 1885), abolitionist and life insurance reformer, was born in South Canaan, Connecticut, the son of Elizur Wright, Sr., and Clarissa Richards, farmers. In 1810 the family moved to the Western Reserve of Ohio to obtain cheaper farm land and also to spread the Congregational faith. Wright was the first son of his father’s second marriage, and his parents’ high expectations and exhortation to act on moral principles undergirded his long reform career. Circumstances and youthful ambivalence conspired to bar him from his intended career as a minister. After graduation in 1826 from Yale College (his father’s alma mater), he taught school in Groton, Massachusetts, from 1826 to 1828, where he met his future wife, Susan Clark, whom he married in 1829. They eventually had eighteen children. In lieu of the ministry, the pious young man served four months between 1828 and 1829 as an agent for the American Tract Society in western Pennsylvania before accepting a professorship of mathematics and natural philosophy at Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio....