If there was ever an unsung hero of Leeds, Wilson Armistead is that man. Little known even within his own city, Armistead was a Quaker factory owner, abolitionist, and a member of The Leeds Library. You can see his name in the Library’s share register.
It’s interesting to speculate about whether he would have discussed the Leeds Anti-slavery Society he helped set up in 1853 with other members of the library. Edward Baines, editor of the Leeds Mercury was also a member, and another keen anti-slavery advocate. How much they were influenced by Armistead, we can only guess, but it is interesting to think that he might have been instrumental in recruiting more anti-slavery supporters. He didn’t confine himself to the abolition movement however – he also thought that women were as important as men, and many joined the Society, including his wife who became the Society’s librarian. The traditional slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’, was joined by ‘Am I not a woman and a sister?’.
When Armistead and his family moved to Virginia Cottage, now part of Leeds University campus, in 1844, he discovered that it had been built from the profits of tobacco plantations and enslaved people in Virginia.
In his book, A Tribute for the Negro published in 1848, he challenges the justifications for slavery and the excuses used by slave owners to defend their treatment of Black people. Armistead stated that any profits from the publication of the book would be given to those that would ‘advance the cause of freedom’.
In 1850, Armistead visited the States where he met former slaves Ellen and William Craft. . The Crafts had escaped from Macon, Georgia and fled north. Ellen was the child of a white plantation owner, so dressed as a white male slaver with William as her servant in order to disguise their true identities, the two could escape without raising suspicion. Their daring flight made the news, but this backfired when they became the target for bounty hunters aiming to return them to Georgia following the recent implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act. With the support of friends, the Crafts came to Britain where they stayed with Armistead and his family and appeared on the 1851 Leeds census as “fugitive slaves”.
The Crafts spoke about their experiences to a rapt audience at the Woodhouse Mechanic’s Institute, and Armistead and his Anti-Slavery Society commissioned lectures from other African Americans including Frederick Douglass, another escapee from slavery.
When slavery in the U.S.A. ended with the Civil War, the liberated men, women, and children received help from Armistead and others in Leeds and around the country.
Armistead died in February 1868, in the same house that had inspired his passion as an abolitionist, and his son inherited the business neglected by his philanthropic father.
He has been described by William Wells Brown, himself an ex-slave, ‘Few English gentlemen have done more to hasten the day of the slave’s liberation than Wilson Armistead’.
It’s a cliché, but Armistead Wilson has shown that one man can truly make a difference.
The Wilson Armistead books are part of The Leeds Library’s important historic collection of local history, and the share register is held in the Library’s archive.