fb-pixelA school built by abolitionists — and a slaver - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Steven M. Rothstein

A school built by abolitionists — and a slaver

As we get set to honor the remarkable life of Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrate the changes in our society since his “I Have A Dream” speech 50 years ago, it is hard to grasp that close to 30 million people live as slaves today.

It is harder still to comprehend that nearly 60,000 people are enslaved here in the United States, according to a new Global Slavery Index from the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation. In fact, some of our most venerable institutions, including Perkins School for the Blind, have connections to the slave trade.

We think of enslaving human beings as a terrible practice of the past, but slavery continues today. The International Labor Organization estimates that modern slavery generates at least $32 billion in annual profits. Nearly half of those profits are made in wealthy industrialized countries. According to the US Department of Labor, laborers around the world are forced to work under the threat of violence for little or no pay to produce things we use every day: clothing, soccer balls, and chocolate, to name a few.


Perkins has a fascinating and complicated history in this regard. Our first director, Samuel Gridley Howe, and his wife, Julia Ward Howe, were leaders in the abolitionist movement. Howe was one of the founders of an antislavery newspaper, the Boston Daily Commonwealth, which he edited with the assistance of his wife. According to their daughter, Florence Hall, their South Boston home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Howe, a fierce opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law, was a member of the Vigilance Committee, which sought to protect runaway slaves in Boston from Southern slave catchers. According to historic accounts, Howe joined other abolitionists in a meeting at Faneuil Hall that preceded an effort by some of the group to storm a courthouse in an effort to free captured escaped slave Anthony Burns in 1854.

Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins was a wealthy Boston merchant who donated his Boston home to our school, then known as the “Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind.” In 1832, our school was renamed Perkins School for the Blind based on his incredible generosity. But he had played the polar opposite role in the history of slavery.


Perkins was a major industrial investor in Massachusetts who owned the Granite Railway and significant holdings in textiles, railroads, and iron mines. He and his brother were “commission merchants.” They outfitted ships and helped to sell the cargo for a commission. When the cargo was slaves, they arranged to sell them. As a young man, he traded furs from the American Northwest to the Far East and traded slaves in Haiti through India and China.

He was not alone in this practice. Many industrialists and merchants were involved in trading slaves, a common practice at the time. Eight US presidents owned slaves while they were in office.

Simply put, the wealth that Perkins acquired in part from the slave trade over 200 years ago helped to lay the financial foundation for our school. Universities such as Brown, Columbia, William & Mary, and others have similarly complex connections to slavery. At Perkins, it is our responsibility today to recognize this inhumane element of our treasured history, even as we cherish the abolitionism of Samuel and Julia Ward Howe.

We also have to question manufacturers of the products and services we purchase regarding their links to slave labor. We need to assist those still enslaved today. For example, we had a young man enrolled as a student who had been blinded while a slave in Sudan. His former master brutally blinded him with ashes from a hot fire. His adopted family and Perkins helped him gain new skills and renewed hope.


As we start the new year at Perkins, we celebrate our 185th year of service. One way we can honor our past is to cultivate in our students values that they can use to build the kind of society we want for the future. For all of us, 2014 is the time to ensure that this will be the last generation where slavery exists.

Steven M. Rothstein is the president of Perkins School for the Blind.