Lead Story West Edition

Slavery collections to be housed in Southland library

LOS ANGELES — A Southland library will become the home of two collections related to slavery and the abolitionist movement in 19th-century America.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino has announced that it will be the new home for the collections.

The first collection is records of Zachariah Taylor Shugart, a Quaker abolitionist who operated an Underground Railroad stop at his farm in Cass County, Michigan. Shugart kept a journal where he recorded every detail of his life, including personal and business affairs.

The second collection archives about 2,000 letters and accounts that document the history of the Dickinson & Shrewsbury Saltworks in what is now Kanawha County, West Virginia, which heavily relied on slave labor. 

“These new materials provide compelling windows into the lives of those who were enslaved and those who escaped slavery, and also shed light on the politics of the times before, during, and after the Civil War,” said Sandra Ludig Brooke, Avery Director of the Library at the Huntington. “They are a vivid complement to The Huntington’s rich collections documenting American slavery, abolition movements, and the history of the American South.”

Shugart’s writings are considered valuable because those that operated Underground Railroads rarely kept any records, Brooke said. Shugart’s entries included the names of 137 individuals and children who were escaping slavery, many names of which were on official escaped and enslaved lists. Some entries had names such as “North Star” or “General W. Hampton”, others just referred to by their first name. Each entry was accompanied by an “S” or “W”, which may have indicated the next stop of their journey.

The Dickinson & Shrewsbury saltworks papers give more of a political and economic perspective of the function of slavery in the United States. The papers provide insights into the lives of enslaved and free black Virginians, including the family of Booker T. Washington, who later became the president of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University).

Many of the papers concern a protracted lawsuit that occurred as the company was dissolved in 1857, underscoring the politics and economics of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. The collection includes numerous bills of sale for those who were enslaved, detailed records of auctions, and records of the loans of enslaved men and women to the saltworks.

That collection contains transactions and conversations between slave owners that may be difficult to read because of the strong inhumane language towards enslaved people. The records, however, also include a letter written by an enslaved person which is extremely rare to find, according to Brooke.

“These two important acquisitions highlight the complexities of documenting America’s history of slavery,” said Olga Tsapina, the Norris Foundation Curator of American History at the Huntington. “They also demonstrate how complex and difficult it was to abolish it because of how immersed it was in American society.”

Tsapina said the Shugart papers were comparable to another important Huntington holding, the ledger of abolitionist John Brown. While Brown’s account book is not related to the Underground Railroad, it is similar to Shugart’s in that it contains historically valuable records of an abolitionist combatting slavery amid mundane accounts and details of daily life. These were products of an era when many people did not have funds to purchase multiple account ledgers.

The two collections are currently being reviewed and cataloged. Due to some materials being very fragile, they will not be available to the public, only to researchers. The Shugart letters, however, will be digitized and uploaded to the library’s website where it can be enjoyed by the public along with dozens of other collections.