Gift Packages (Boxes)
“I wish you also to call at Mrs. Stuarts and tell her how to have the
box directed to Mr. Rice if she has not already found out I. J. R.
Amherstburg Essex Co Western District Province Canada carr of
gillet & Denir’s Detroit if Mr. Grant forwards it they will know
how to direct it…”
Many who supported the abolitionist cause were encouraged to send packages containing funds, old clothing, and bedding to aid “suffering and destitute fugitives.”.Reverend Isaac J. Rice, superintendent, and secretary of the Amherstburg Missionary Society would then direct these goods to where they were most needed. The Amherstburg Missionary Society especially appealed for relief from American abolitionists hoping that those “…who reside in the country from whence they [fugitive slaves] come, would feel a disposition to assist them…”. However, this charitable spirit also created new issues at the border. Freight charges and duties were placed on these packages and unfortunately, these fees were often higher than the value of the packages themselves. Almost ironically, an enterprise that was designed to support self-emancipated people was hemorrhaging funds and could hardly support itself.While Rice did ask the Governor General that these charges and duties be lifted, his request was ultimately denied.
Rice was a controversial figure and was frequently involved in arguments with his fellow abolitionists, particularly members of burgeoning black communities who became suspicious of his missionary work. Self-proclaimedFugitives of the County of Essex, Canada West (including Levi Foster, John Hatfield, J. Morton, E.O. Brown, and A.W. Chandler) defamed Rice after discovering that little funds save a few old clothes had been directed to self-emancipated peoples even though Rice was continually requesting aide from American abolitionists.In their publication An Appeal of the Fugitives in Canada to their Friends in the U.S. they verbally attacked Rice, saying, “The miserable God and man forsaken wretch! …This is the man that has been receiving your money and donations of all kinds, and what has he done with them?” A figure of contention in her own right, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, editor of The Provincial Freemanreprinted copy of An Appeal of the Fugitives in Canada to their Friends in the U.S.in her newspaper.
Even without the dubious “help” of Isaac Rice, the gift baskets continued to be a source of controversy. White abolitionists sent these packages as an act of charity and Christian goodwill; however, this sentiment was not always communicated properly to recipients. Prominent leaders in Canadian black communities sought independence from whites. Mary Ann Shadd Cary held particularly strong views about begging and relying upon white philanthropy. She believed that begging for land, money, or clothing was degrading and reflected poorly on her community.While financial aid was at times necessary, Shadd Cary used her editorials to remind her community that aid from charities such as the Anti-Slavery Society should only be temporary and that fugitives should seek employment as soon as possible.She highlighted homesteading as critical to developing independence and self-empowerment believing that only after achieving autonomy would the self-emancipated man receive respect from outside communities.
It may seem ironic that something as seemingly innocent and benevolent as a gift package was surrounded by so much controversy, however, the gift package shows how unexpectedly divisive the abolition movement was. To Almira Porter Barnes, sending a gift box represented well-intentioned and desperately needed relief. She would be doing her Christianly duty to support those in need. On the other hand, to figures like Mary Ann Shadd Carey, the gift boxes were deriding and dehumanizing. Instead of philanthropy, she saw her people become pitiable charity cases who were unable to survive without dependence on whites.
Almira Porter Barnes to Laura Willard, June 28, 1844.
Amherstburg Missionary Society, Circular. Amherstburg Mission, May 11th, 1854. To friends of this mission, in behalf of self-colonized fugitives. Many may not understand our work, & the object aimed at in soliciting aid for persons of color reaching this country, (Amherstburg: s.n., 1854).
Amherstburg Missionary Society, Circular. Amherstburg Mission, May 11th, 1854. To friends of this mission, in behalf of self-colonized fugitives. Many may not understand our work, & the object aimed at in soliciting aid for persons of color reaching this country.
Robin W. Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History(Montreal &Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 197.
Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History, 197.
Fugitives of the County of Essex, Canada West. “An Appeal of the Fugitives in Canada to their Friends in the U.S.” The Provincial Freeman, June 30th, 1855. http://ink.scholarsportal.info/viewer/cecil/focus/ink/newspapers/pf/reel1/001130-x0-y0-z1-r0-0-0?q=%22Mr.%20Rice%22.
Fugitives of the County of Essex, Canada West. “An Appeal of the Fugitives in Canada to their Friends in the U.S.”June 30th, 1855
Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History,206.
Nassisse, Solomon. “Calling to her Brethren: Immigration, Race and Female Representation in the Life Writings of Mary Ann Shadd Cary.” In Women in the “Promised Land” edited by Nina Reid-Maroney, Boulou Ebanda de B’béri, and Wanda Thomas Bernard (Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press, 2018), 24.
Solomon, “Calling to her Brethren,” 23-24.