David Ruggles, 19th-Century Abolitionist Known as ‘the Soul of the Underground Railroad, Owned the First Black Bookstore and Helped Free 600 Slaves, Including Frederick Douglass

IN THE DEAD of a cold December night, David Ruggles woke up to the sound of a commotion outside his front door.

Then, the pounding started.

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A voice outside asked, “Is Mr. Ruggles in?”

“Who are you?” Ruggles responded.

“A friend – David, open the door,” the man said.

Ruggles knew there was no friend outside, only danger.

The year was 1836, and though he was a free Black man living in New York City, nearly 150 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, he could never be entirely safe from the surreptitious band of slave catchers that prowled the city.

And his reputation as an abolitionist, together with his visit days before to an illegal slave ship to determine if enslaved people were on board, made him a prime target that night.

Ruggles refused to open the door. Once the men left, Ruggles escaped into the frigid night.

In the 1800s before the Civil War, New York was a dangerously unpredictable place for Black Americans to navigate. Fugitive slaves had been escaping to the city for decades, blending in with a small population of free Black people to avoid capture. By 1804, most northern states had passed laws ending slavery. But free Black people remained second-class citizens. And their freedom was precarious: At any given moment, they could be arrested and either returned to their owners or sold into slavery.

Against this backdrop, Ruggles emerged as a brash, outspoken activist who fiercely stood up against white supremacy. Nearly two centuries after his death, his legacy remains obscure despite a range of accomplishments that few historical figures can match.

Ruggles owned a grocery store and the first Black-owned bookstore, filled with antislavery literature. He founded his own magazine to advance the abolitionist cause.

Decades before Ida B. Wells-Barnett exposed the gory details of lynchings, Ruggles was a pioneering investigative journalist who wrote about free Black people being kidnapped and forced into slavery. One century before Malcolm X emerged as a fiery critic of American values, Ruggles was a gifted orator who inspired audiences to care about the liberation of slaves. And long before Harriet Tubman became the Moses of the enslaved, Ruggles was described as the “soul of the Underground Railroad.” He helped as many as 600 enslaved people escape to freedom.

When Frederick Douglass arrived in New York as a frightened, penniless fugitive from Baltimore, it was Ruggles who gave him money and shelter, and who eventually became his mentor.

Unlike these heroic people whose lives and accomplishments are well-documented, Ruggles’ life and work remain buried in centuries-old newspapers and pamphlets. To stitch his life together, USA TODAY combed through thousands of pages in dozens of antislavery publications. These include Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first Black newspaper started in 1827; The Liberator, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s famed 1831 newspaper; and The Emancipator, the newspaper whose 1833 inaugural publication galvanized the abolitionist movement in New York state.

Ruggles ultimately paid a steep price for his activism, exhausting himself and burning out way too soon. He died blind and ill at 39, never acquiring much fame or fortune.

“Ruggles’ relentless, uncompromising vigilance against kidnappers and deeply humane assistance to Blacks fleeing slavery make him a model for any American battling for our freedoms,” said Graham Hodges, a history professor at Colgate University in New York. “He showed that journalism counts and that writing is fighting.”

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SOURCE: USA Today, Javonte Anderson

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