Abolishing the Myth
Professor Manisha Sinha is revealing significant black contributions to the fight to end slavery
Most Americans see the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement as having been led and mostly made up of highly principled if somewhat dour white people in conjunction with a small band of gifted but decidedly less significant black associates. Manisha Sinha has been systematically dismantling that myth for ten years or more.
A professor in UMass Amherst’s W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and the director of its graduate program, Sinha is a much-acclaimed historian of slavery, regional conflict in the antebellum U.S., the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Much of her richest, most rewarding work, however, has been on the abolitionist movement.
Sinha has done much to document the practical and theoretical contributions of such black abolitionists as James W. C. Pennington, who received an honorary doctorate of divinity from the University of Heidelberg in 1849, at a point when he was not permitted to ride public streetcars in the United States. Sinha has also worked to dispel the notion that the abolitionists “caused” the Civil War. “We can blame them for emancipation,” she says, “but not the war.”
Born in India, Sinha, like many Asians and Africans of her generation, grew up keenly aware of the civil rights movement and how the U.S. was dealing with issues of race and citizenship. She avidly read the works of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other black champions of that era. Only after coming to America to pursue a doctorate at Columbia University, however, did she become intrigued by the 19th-century origins of the struggle for black equality.
Sinha’s book on the abolitionist movement, scheduled for publication in 2013 by Yale University Press, will duly honor the contributions of black Americans but will also deal with the movement as a whole. She has contributed to an upcoming episode on abolition for PBS’s American Experience series and is the lead historian for an exhibition on the subject to be housed at the Brooklyn Historical Society. In April, Sinha will deliver the keynote address for the National Public History Underground Railroad Conference in Troy, N.Y.