WENDELL PHILLIPS (1811-1884)
By Janice Clemons-Harley, Class of June 1956
Wendell Phillips was a famous 19th century reform crusader, one of the most fervent abolitionists of his time. Phillips was born in Boston on November 29, 1811. He was a Mayflower descendent, born into a family of wealth and privilege. Wendell was the eighth child in a family of nine children. His father was the first mayor of Boston, Massachusetts. As a youth, Phillips attended the famous Boston Latin School. He went on to Harvard College and then to Harvard Law School. While at college, his reputation was made as a public speaker and athlete. After his graduation in 1834, he opened a law office; however, he spent little time in practicing law.
Phillips and his wife, Ann Terry Greene, were married in October 1837. They met at Law School and shared common ideals which bound them close together throughout their lives. He often told friends that she had converted him to Abolitionism. However, it was a scene he witnessed prior to his marriage that set him on the course that his life took. He saw William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, being dragged down the street by an angry white mob. Garrison had organized various state Abolitionist societies into the American Anti-Slavery Society. Phillips was frustrated that he was unable to do no more than watch. It left a memorable impression on him and he became one of the foremost spokesmen and thinkers of the abolitionist movement. Phillips, a magnificent orator, was the society‘s most popular public speaker, able to describe their aims and method with eloquence. Phillips also wrote numerous pamphlets and editorials on slavery and was a financial contributor to the movement. In 1865 Wendell Phillips replaced Garrison as president of the Anti-
Slavery Society. However, he later broke with Garrison on his ―non- resistance‖ Philosophy.
By the 1860s, Wendell Phillips was among the best known public speakers in the nation. As a traveling lecturer, he discussed historical, patriotic and scientific subjects as well as abolition. Wendell Phillips was known for his powerful, riveting speeches that were attended by thousands and read by hundreds of thousands. He broke with oral tradition of the time and spoke in an informal down-to-earth manner. In an era known as the ―Golden Age of Oratory,‖ he stood out as a speaker. An 1867 newspaper editorial characterized him as ―the man who as a private citizen has exercised a greater influence upon the destiny of this country than any public man of his age.‖ Phillips continued to lecture until the 1880s. Wendell Phillips gave up a life of status and wealth to join the anti-slavery movement. While President of the Antislavery Society (1865-1870), he called for the removal of the word ―white‖ from every law. He agitated on behalf of integrating the free schools in Boston to allow colored children to attend along with white children. In speaking against slavery, he was often pelted with eggs and bricks. He regularly carried a gun for self defense. One of his more famous quotations, ―Peace if possible, but justice at any rate,‖ was etched in the auditorium of the ―new‖ Wendell Phillips High School that was later renamed in 1936 as DuSable Senior High School.
Phillips was uncompromising in his fight against slavery. He openly criticized Abraham Lincoln, for his lack of commitment to the abolition of slavery and opposed his renomination. He denounced the Constitution because it upheld slavery. He also recommended that the South should be expelled from the Union until slavery was abolished. After the passing of the 15th Amendment, Phillips concentrated on other issues such as universal suffrage and temperance. His speeches breathed scorn upon every law, custom, and prejudice responsible for the subjection of women. He joined with others in the fight to emancipate women from legal, political, economic, and social subjection. He also gave attention to the struggle for Irish independence, championed the rights of Native Americans and was an advocate for prison reform.
After the Civil War, Phillips fought to strengthen the labor movement, recognizing ominous features in the development of corporate wealth and political power. He helped to organize the Labor Reform Association, leading the fight for an eight-hour work day and protective labor legislation. Wendell Phillips died in Boston on February 2, 1884. At his death,
he received Boston‘s equivalent of a state funeral as thousands viewed his coffin.
The naming of our school for Wendell Phillips may have foreshadowed its significance in the lives of the African American student body that eventually predominated for most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. The noble name of Wendell Phillips, a stalwart nineteenth century patriot, is a name of which all Phillipsites can rightfully be proud.