Monday, May 27, 2024


Descendants of abolitionist explore their family ties
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William Lloyd Garrison, famous abolitionist and publisher of "The Liberator" newspaper. Some 150 of his descendants gathered in Boston recently on the 200th anniversary of his birth. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)
American history buffs may remember William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison pushed for an immediate end to slavery at a time when even northern politicians favored a more gradual approach to emancipation. He published the radical anti-slavery newspaper, "The Liberator," from 1831 until his vision became a reality at the end of the Civil War.

Earlier this month, 150 of Garrison's descendants converged on suburban Boston to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth. It was the culmination of the Garrison family's long-running obsession with their most famous ancestor. MPR producer Curtis Gilbert, Garrison's great-great-great-grandson, gives us a first-hand account.

Boston, Mass. — Nobody remembers when they found out. Even at the reunion I don't find anyone who can recall when they learned they were related to William Lloyd Garrison. It's like we were all born with it, right along with the gene for male pattern baldness.

Growing up, we never felt right keeping Garrison to ourselves. Close my eyes, and I'm a dorky 10-year-old on the edge of my seat in social studies, waiting for the class to turn to the page in our history books with Garrison's picture on it.

Or, I'm on a stool taking our one crumbling copy of "The Liberator" off the high shelf in my bedroom to show off the ancient newspaper to my friends. But my aunt, Daphne Harwood, remembers that it wasn't always easy growing up a Garrison.

"When I was in school, people kind of laughed at me because I was proud of him. 'We have important relatives, too, but we don't talk about it. You and your sisters are so boasty!'" Harwood recalls. "And now I don't feel that anymore. I feel about ready to tell everybody!"

About five years ago, aunt Daphne set out to do just that. She knew William Lloyd Garrison's 200th birthday was in 2005, and she wanted to get the whole extended family together to celebrate. She wrote letters to all the Garrison descendants she knew -- which she soon realized wasn't very many.

"Gradually more names were gathered in. I'd get a letter from someone saying, 'Yeah, I'd like to participate,' and they sent on the letter they got to other people, and the net gradually, gradually widened," says Harwood.

"Binger, Robinson, Auchenchloss, Valentine, Hutchinson, Gould..."

My cousin, David Foss Garrison, lists the families represented at the reunion. It's almost more of a multi-family reunion. These are people who trace their lineage back to one of William Lloyd Garrison's five children -- five or so generations ago.

"This is, of course, a gathering of strangers," he says.

The family members get private tours of the Garrison exhibitions at the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Afro-American History.

Along the way, folks introduce themselves and try to figure out how they are related to each other.

"It's an exciting thing to do, to be with all these people who are related to you, however remotely, who share this one little bit of common bond. It seems to me that that's what life is all about," says one distant relative.

The tour guide points out family memorabilia and other mementos on display.

"You'll notice when you come in, the central glass case, which contains one of Garrison's morning coats, a top hat, and my favorite of all items in the exhibit -- which is a marvelous hat box," says the guide.

There are color-coded name tags denoting your particular family line; Garrison pins; Garrison tote bags; lectures from Civil War historians.

The history stuff I get. But I want to know about the family reunion part. What have we learned from it? What do any of these distant relatives have in common, besides this single ancestor? My aunt, Daphne Harwood, thinks she sees it in our hands.

"In the pinky, there's oftentimes a little crook on the last joint. And then there's sometimes a similarity in the shape of the thumb," she says.

Aunt Daphne is taking photographs at the reunion and making a catalog of Garrison hands. She plans to present it to the official William Lloyd Garrison archive at Smith College.

"I thought, this is just crazy, whimsical. It's not very scientific or anything, but after a while maybe it could be scientific," says Daphne.

My cousin David isn't sure there's any one thing that we all hold in common, except maybe that William Lloyd Garrison term paper we all wrote in grade school.

But Marion Kilson, who co-curated the Garrison exhibits we toured, said something about my great-great-great-grandfather that stuck in my mind.

"He was a visionary person who also had organizational skills, and that was enormously important," Kilson says.

Passion and practicality. Looking out over the sea of strangers who traveled from far and wide to relive the American anti-slavery movement -- and realizing that it took five years of letters, meetings, research and reservations to pull this reunion off -- it strikes me that there may be a stronger connection than I realized between William Lloyd Garrison's descendants, and the man himself.