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Little-known role of North East women in anti-slavery movement to be highlighted

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Published on 08 June 2021

New Blue plaque
New Blue plaque

The role played by North East women in the anti-slavery movement will be highlighted when a new Blue Plaque is revealed in the region.

Later this month a heritage plaque will be unveiled in Sunderland city centre to highlight the activism of Sunderland’s Quaker women.

The plaque will be fixed to the façade of the newly-restored buildings at 172-3 High Street West after a successful bid by academics at the University of Sunderland.

Professor Angela Smith, who led the bid, says women in the North East are now seen as instrumental in running the successful anti-slavery campaigns of the 19th century.

She added: “We have all heard of William Wilberforce, and many of the men whose names are attached to his as anti-slavery campaigners in the 18th century are commemorated around the country.

“In Sunderland, we have a blue plaque to mark the contribution of James Field Stanfield. However, what is less well known is the way the anti-slavery movement continued in Britain after the official abolition of slavery in 1807.

“Slavery continued in the United States, for example, until 1865, but this is complicated by the American Civil War and the continued use of slave labour in the county for many years after.

“Escaped slaves toured Europe and particularly Britain to tell their stories and garner support for the anti-slavery movement. Most famously, Frederick Douglass toured the UK in 1845-7, holding audiences spellbound by his powerful oration. What is less well known is that Douglass’s freedom was purchased by British Quakers: Anna and Ellen Richardson, who lived in Newcastle.

“The Quakers in the UK had long been associated with the anti-slavery movement. In the North East of England, it is the women who are now seen to have been instrumental in running the successful anti-slavery campaigns in the 19th century.

“For example, Sunderland became well known for its shop keepers banning the sale of West Indian-produced sugar, in favour of what was perceived to be non-slave produced East Indian sugar.

“There was also the wider ban on cotton produced in the American South, farmed by enslaved people. The main shops in the area were run by Quakers: the Binns family, for example, ran Sunderland’s preeminent department store as well as smaller grocers’ shops.

“Whilst it may have been the men’s names that graced the shop fronts, it was the campaigning work of the Quaker women who actually came up with these strategies to raise awareness of the plight of enslaved people.”

The new plaque in Sunderland will be located on the building that housed the first Binns department store in 173 High Street West.

The virtual unveiling will feature short talks by Professor Smith, who will give a background to the role of women in political activism, and Mrs Ann Smith, who will talk about the Sunderland Quaker women’s contribution.

The event, which will also include a Q&A, is free to attend, but needs to be pre-booked by visiting here

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