March 15, 1810
December 26, 1849
Abolitionist and journalist David Ruggles was born of free parents in Connecticut and educated at a Sabbath School for the Poor in Norwich. Ruggles moved to New York City at the age of seventeen; in 1829 he opened a grocery, with goods of "excellent quality," but no "spiritous liquors." Ruggles began his antislavery work with a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1830, seeking the revolutionary hero's endorsement of immediate abolition. In 1833 he sharpened his speaking skills as a traveling agent for the Emancipator, the New York antislavery newspaper. In his speeches he attacked colonization and spoke of antislavery experiences in New York, of the Conventions of Colored Peoples, and of the recently established Phoenix Society.
With Henry Highland Garnet, Ruggles organized the Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association and was an officer in the New York City Temperance Union. He opened the first known African-American bookshop in New York City, which was located at 67 Lispenard Street, in 1834; it served the abolitionist and black communities until destroyed by a mob in 1835.
In 1834 Ruggles published his first pamphlet, the anti-colonization satire Extinguisher, Extinguished … or David M. Reese, M.D. "Used Up." This pamphlet and the later An Antidote for a Furious Combination … (1838) attacked the procolonizationist arguments of the Methodist cleric David Reese. Ruggles expanded his abolitionist arguments in the 1835 feminist appeal The Abrogation of the Seventh Commandment by the American Churches. The pamphlet, published on Ruggles's own press (another African-American first), stood proslavery arguments and fearful fantasies on their heads and called for northern feminists to shun or ostracize the southern wives of slaveholders. In 1835 he penned numerous articles in William L. Garrison's Emancipator.
In 1835 Ruggles founded and headed the New York Vigilance Committee, which protected free blacks from kidnapping. He was a daring conductor on the Underground Railroad, harboring Frederick Douglass and one thousand other blacks before transferring them north to safety.
A fearless activist and fundraiser, Ruggles also went to the homes of whites where he believed black servants were unlawfully held. He served writs against slavecatchers and directly confronted them in the street. In the frequent columns he wrote for the Colored American, he exposed racism on railroads. In 1839 he published a Slave-holders Directory, which identified the names and addresses of politicians, lawyers, and police in New York who "lend themselves to kidnapping."
Between 1838 and 1841 Ruggles published five issues of the Mirror of Liberty, the first African-American magazine. Circulated widely throughout the East, the Midwest, and even the South, the Mirror of Liberty chronicled the activities of the Vigilance Committee, gave accounts of kidnappings and related court cases, and printed antislavery speeches and notices from black organizations. Despite its irregular appearances, the magazine was a significant achievement.
Burdened by a fractious and costly dispute with Samuel Cornish, accused of mishandling funds, having been jailed for his activities, and suffering from near blindness, Ruggles moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1842. There Lydia Maria Child and the Northampton Association of Education and Industry gave him succor in the 1840s while he continued his activities on the Underground Railroad. In Northampton, Ruggles overcame his poor health and built a prosperous practice as a doctor of hydropathy, using water in the treatment of various diseases. He attended a huge variety of patients, from the wife of a southern slave owner to William Lloyd Garrison to Sojourner Truth. He died in 1849 from a severe intestinal illness.
See also Abolition; Underground Railroad
Porter, Dorothy B. "David Ruggles, an Apostle of Human Rights." Journal of Negro History 28 (1943): 23–50.
Porter, Dorothy B. "David Ruggles." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.
graham russell hodges (1996)