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‘F Is for Fugitive’

Abel Thomas, a Unitarian minister, writer, and antislavery activist from Philadelphia, published Gospel of Slavery: A Primer of Freedom, a children’s A-to-Z book about the evils of slavery, in 1864.

Abolitionists in the antebellum period made periodic attempts to win over young audiences. On the whole, however, as historian James Marten has written, children’s literature about the Civil War emphasized the adventure of war and the joy of patriotism and encouraged children to be strong in the absence of their fathers. This larger picture makes Thomas’ Gospel of Slavery even more unusual.

The book is vivid and unsparing as it describes the separation of slave families and the sad plight of young female slaves. The W (“Woman”) page bemoans the fact that enslaved women’s “sham” marriages wouldn’t provide them with protection against their family members being sold.

The page for Q (“Query”) asks disturbing and provocative questions about the origins and fate of “quadroons,” or mixed-race enslaved people.

The Gospel of Slavery gave credit to enslaved people for their own efforts at escaping. The page for F (“Fugitives”) calls fugitives’ plans “patient” and “shrewd,” noting how difficult some of the escapes could be. Telling the story of escapes was also a good way for the writer to shoehorn adventure into a book for young people; the page for B, “Bloodhound,” contains a grisly illustration and mention of “merciless fangs.”