Black Abolitionists: A John Winthrop Student Fellowship Project

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant collections of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Applications for the 2022 Student Fellowships will open in November, 2021. Learn more and apply!

This year, our 2021 John Winthrop Student Fellow Sterling Hoyte of Concord Academy has created an educational website exploring the history of Black abolitionists and freedom fighters with the support of his teacher mentor Emma Storbeck. According to Sterling, “The goal of this project is to create an educational tool that displays Black abolitionists, their work, and how it impacted the abolition movement. It aims to tell the story of abolition through a uniquely Black perspective.” Visit Sterling’s website Black Abolitionists to learn more about his incredible research.


Throughout the majority of my education, I learned about the American abolition movement from a distinctly white perspective. Teachers relayed the words of Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry David Thoreau, but times when I learned about African Americans’ contributions to the anti-slavery movement were few and far between. The only Black abolitionist I was able to learn about extensively was Frederick Douglass. Though Douglass’s speeches interested me, they left me with a single Black perspective on abolition, whereas the perspectives of white men were seemingly infinite.

It is because of this important gap in my education that I applied for the John Winthrop Student Fellowship proposing a project that centers around Black abolitionists. In truth, some of the most effective and inspiring abolitionists have been Black people. Often their approach to the movement was shaped by the way they were raised, whether as a free or enslaved person, and the hardships they underwent. If a person began their life enslaved, they had to escape bondage before even beginning their career in abolitionism. If a person was born free, they had to constantly push against the legal and societal discrimination presented to them at any given moment of their lives. Based on their backgrounds, abolitionists fought differently: violently, peacefully, through their actions or through their words.

Fighting for the end of slavery as a Black person was dangerous; many of the abolitionists featured in my project were targeted as the subjects of mob and police violence. Several had stores looted and homes burned down. Despite the difficulties of advocating for an end to slavery as a Black person, the abolition movement produced some of the foremost Black speakers, writers, and thinkers in the history of the United States. The thousands of narratives, speeches, petitions, periodicals, journals, publications, etc. are a testament to the courage and effort that African American abolitionists put into emancipating their people. Though this project only explores a mere fraction of the anti-slavery work produced by Black people before emancipation, its goal is to do so thoroughly, accurately, and comprehensively. My website aims to tell the story of emancipation from a perspective glossed over in my classrooms, from a Black perspective.

During my research I used many of the MHS’s archives as primary sources. It was my first time doing historical research of this nature, and to be able to work directly with handwritten texts of the era was fascinating. The MHS helped me access historical graphics, newspaper articles, obituaries, pieces of legislation, and so much more that guided my research. ABIGAIL [the MHS online library catalogue] served as both an immediate resource and a jumping off point for further research.

Over the course of this project, I was given the opportunity to read abolitionist literature that I never would have discovered without this fellowship. For example, The Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: formerly a slave in the United States of America offered insight on daily life in slavery and the brutalities that accompanied it. Paul Jenning’s A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison revealed stories of enslavement in our nation’s government. The poetry of Frances Harper, the petitions of Prince Hall, and the records of the Boston Anti-Man Hunting League all built a world of abolitionism that I was excited to explore throughout the project.

If I could offer advice to future John Winthrop student fellows, I would tell them not to worry if your research is taking you in an unexpected direction. If you come into a project too narrow-minded, you’ll miss interesting history that could be useful. It is important to let your research guide you just as much as you guide your research. At the same time, you should know when to narrow the scope of your discoveries. With all topics there are an infinite amount of things to learn about, and you may feel compelled (as I did) to continue looking as far as you can. As your project comes to a close, set boundaries for yourself and your research. It is inevitable that there will be things you discover that are not included in the final product, and that’s okay.

I am incredibly grateful to the MHS for this opportunity, and would encourage anyone thinking about it to apply. It was a fun and informative experience, and has inspired me to continue doing historical research.