The practicality of the first Black bookstore owner, the role of ex-presidents, and more about libraries and erasing history: newsletter, July 31, 2020

August 2, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,550) on Friday, July 31, 2020.


As with much of the rest of the world, Americans continue to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. Should we send children to school? Can professional sports maintain a schedule? Is it safe to go to a restaurant or to church? Will there be a vaccine any time soon? Without many answers or much firm information, we are left to navigate these dangerous shoals.

Fortunately, there is general agreement that the pandemic is real and the virus is dangerous and that we should take measures to combat it.

Meanwhile, we make allowances so that life can continue. I hope that you are coming to terms with the allowances that you must make and, in doing so, find new parts of your life that give you excitement and pleasure. Have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,556 subscribers and had a 29.3 percent open rate; 7 persons unsubscribed.

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The practical side of David Ruggles, first Black bookstore owner and magazine editor in America

David Ruggles was a practical man.

In his New York abolitionist circles of the 1830s and 1840s, that designation — a practical man — had a specific meaning. Ruggles didn’t just talk about and write about the need to free the slaves of America; he did something about it.

In the words of his biographer, Graham Hodges:

Over the course of his life, Ruggles was a true 19th-century Renaissance man, a visionary political leader, a savvy street fighter and a healer. He didn’t share Frederick Douglass’ fame or good fortune, but he was an indelible influence on the younger man  — crucial to forging the legend that Douglass was to become. Source: David Ruggles: Friend to Frederick Douglass, leading black activist

David Ruggles was born in 1810 in Connecticut. He was never a slave. His parents were among a tiny number of free Blacks living in the nation at the time. His father was a woodcutter, and his mother was locally famous as a caterer and baker of exquisite cakes. As a child, David took to reading and writing and learned quickly the value of these skills.

When he was a teenager, he moved to New York and worked as a mariner and at a variety of other jobs. In 1827 he opened a grocery store. The next year he joined the abolitionist movement under the tutelage of the Rev. Samuel Eli Cornish, editor of the Freedom’s Journal, America’s first Black newspaper. Ruggles became an agent for the Freedom’s Journal and also wrote many articles and editorials about the responsibility that free Blacks had in helping slaves gain their freedom.

Ruggles was not shy about expressing his feelings, and his writing and his activities angered both whites and Blacks. His store was burned twice, and as he re-built it, it morphed into a bookstore that carried abolitionist literature, pamphlets, and books.

At the time Ruggles was active, New York City was a magnet for runaway slaves and for slave catchers, commonly known as “blackbirders.” While slavery was no longer legal in New York, the courts and the legal system rarely worked in favor of Black people. Blackbirders roamed the streets of New York looking for runaway slaves — or Black people whom they could claim were runaways. They had been known to kidnap vulnerable Blacks, especially children, and sell them into slavery.

Ruggles believed in, and practiced, “practical abolition” — helping runaways who had made it to New York get to safer areas. To do this, he and a few other like-minded individuals formed the New York Vigilance Committee to aid those who showed up in New York. Historian Eric Foner has written that the NYVC was the beginning of what we now know as the Underground Railroad.

One of the hundreds of runaways that he helped was Frederick Bailey, who showed up in New York in 1838 from being recently enslaved in Maryland. Bailey was alone, scared, and without a plan. Ruggles found out about him, sought him out, and took him to his house. Ruggles united Bailey with his fianceé, Anna Murray, and the two were married. Ruggles also talked incessantly about the need for those, like Bailey, who had gained their freedom, to become advocates and activists for abolition. Once he left Ruggles’ house, Bailey — who would eventually change his name to Frederick Douglass — knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

During this period, Ruggles was everywhere — down on the docks seeking out runaways, selling books in his shop, raising funds from sympathetic Blacks and whites, and advocating for Black in the New York courts. Somehow, he found the time and resources to publish the nation’s first Black-edited magazine, Mirror of Liberty.

Ruggles’ non-stop activity and advocacy took its toll both on his health and reputation. Ruggles was accused by fellow abolitionists of misusing the funds that he raised, and by 1841, he was in ill health and almost blind. He left New York seeking cures and funds, and with the help of friends eventually landed in a Utopian commune in the present-day village of Florence, Massachusetts. Ruggles recovered some of his health and his eyesight, but he stayed in Florence, where he died in 1849 at the age of 39.

His early death undoubtedly contributed to his current obscurity, but those who knew him never forgot him, especially Douglass, who called him a “whole-souled man.”

Podcast recommendation: Deep Cover

Deep Cover is a rocking good story about an FBI agent that goes undercover into a biker gang in Detroit to discover how drugs are channeled into the United States. What begins as a local incident grows into an international epic that results in the invasion of a country and the overthrowing of its dictator. < >

According to Rolling Stone:

Narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jake Halpern, Deep Cover tells the tale of rookie FBI agent Timmons, who goes undercover with a biker gang after an arrest at that 1982 bar. “You don’t make progress unless you’re dealing with sociopathic, homicidal crazy people,” Timmons says in a new trailer — he took that to heart, too, spending years entrenched with the gang.

I have listened to three episodes and found the podcast well produced, easy to listen to, and fascinating.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Should ex-presidents continue in public service?

Should a person who has been president of the United States continue in government service after leaving the White House?

Throughout American history, the answer has been “No.” An ex-president has no place in any branch of government. Outside public service? Maybe, just as what Jimmy Carter has been doing in the 40 years since he left office. But inside the government? No.

There have only been three exceptions (that I know of) to this generally held belief: John Quincy Adams, who served for 17 years in the House of Representations; Andrew Johnson, who served briefly in the U.S. Senate; and William Howard Taft, who became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why do we think that ex-presidents should not hold other governmental positions? The answer usually given is that it would be “demeaning,” both to the office and to the person. But is that really the case?

John Quincy Adams did not think so. After he had failed in his bid for reelection in 1828, he returned to his native Massachusetts, prepared to live his life in gentle retirement. But he was both bitter and bored — bitter that his efforts as president had not been appreciated enough by the public to grant him a second term and bored because he had been so active in public service up to that point. Adams, at the age of 11, had joined his father on a diplomatic mission to Europe and had held government positions from the time he was a young adult.

When it was proposed that he put his name forward as a candidate for the House, a friend — so the story goes — told him that an ex-president would demean himself by doing so. Adams’ response was that an ex-president would not be demeaned “by serving as a selectman of his own town council if the people elected him.”

Adams entered Congress in 1831 and used all of his knowledge, experience, skill, and prestige in bringing an end to slavery and to helping America achieve the ideals of its Revolution. For most of the next two decades, he argued that America should face up to the fact that slavery could not be justified in a nation that valued civil liberties. He foresaw its end but did not live to see it.

The example of John Quincy Adams demonstrates that ex-presidents may indeed have an important role to play after they have held the “highest office in the land.”

A reader raises questions; the librarian has answers

A couple of weeks ago, I ran a post from a librarian friend about an encounter she had had with a woman who believed that certain books would disappear from the library’s shelves because of the current political climate and debates. That provoked questions from another reader, and my librarian friend has seen fit to answer. The first two parts of the exchange are reprinted below the signature of this email.

As your reader Dan C. addressed several questions, I’ll undertake to answer them!
1. We do indeed in this library have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in their original forms, in several editions; we also have a couple of illustrated versions and adaptations and various scholarly works about them.
2. It is a false analogy to compare a public library to private streaming services, which of course are businesses that can make choices about what to show and not show, just as bookstores and other retailers may choose what to sell, and how to promote (or not) what they sell. Public libraries, on the other hand, have a mandate to provide broad access to materials of all kinds. Our specific library has books by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn as well as works by Dinesh D’Souza and Bill O’Reilly. I could make a much longer list, and indeed we also have various historical works all across the political spectrum which many would consider objectionable, including Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. We can not hold all the books that there are, but we do not remove books to please a particular subset of the community.
In my 7 years at this library, I have received numerous requests to have books removed from the library; in all but one of these cases, the complaint was about LGBTQIA content. None of the books was removed. (The other case was about a book with a pencil drawing of a bra on the cover!) My anecdotal evidence from other librarians here suggests that these two issues (nudity/perceived sexual content and LGBTQIA content) are the most common basis for such complaints, though from time to time there are bursts of interest in banning books containing material pertaining to witchcraft and the occult. We generally do not remove them, though on occasion we might move a book from the Children’s area to the Young Adult, for example. 
That said, our works are overwhelmingly written by white authors and especially by white male authors. We are not seeking to remove these favorites, from Roald Dahl to John Grisham, but we do put up displays like our recent “Lift Every Voice and Sing: Black Lives Matter” display in order to draw attention to other voices that haven’t received as much attention in libraries or in the literary canon over the years. Seeking to diversify our collection is a process of enriching that collection, and enriching people’s experiences. Many popular white male authors (John Green and John Scalzi come to mind) have written eloquently about how happy they are to share the huge world of readership and publishing with more diverse voices.
I would add that the charges that  “movies and TV shows are disappearing from streaming sites in growing numbers” is overstated. The most infamous — and most controversial — case was the “removal” of Gone with the Wind from HBO’s streaming service (HBO Max). It was temporarily removed from that service soon after George Floyd’s murder, because its championing of the antebellum South was felt to cause undue pain in that cultural moment. The plan all along had been to do exactly as Dan C. suggests (referring to Idris Elba), and indeed exactly what film director John Ridley called for, in the L.A. Times editorial that focused so much attention on this issue: To add framing contextual content and then to return the movie to the roster. Again, remembering that these streaming services are businesses, their decisions to change or remove their lineups do not constitute censorship, however upsetting fans may find those decisions. Gone with the Wind remained widely available throughout the brief absence from that service (including from my library, both the film and the original book).
I have seen nothing to change my impression that these strident fears about censorship and erasing of history are nothing other than alarmism and slippery-slope arguments. Indeed, the history of censorship is strong and vibrant, and has most viciously and effectively been enacted, time and again, across cultures, by the powers-that-be to suppress marginalized voices. It is interesting to me that even the most modest and symbolic of efforts to nip at that long and strong tradition are met with anger and fear. It shows that such redress is long, long overdue.

Susan W.: I first heard of the Grimké sisters via excellent, highly-readable historical fiction, THE INVENTION OF WINGS by the talented Sue Monk Kidd. Perhaps you’d make your readers aware of it.

Marcia D.: My Cubs are playing. Woohoo!

I believe in the right to freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully. Because we have had some looting, we now have the hired militia in Seattle. I see nothing good happening. 

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor (with graphite): The Guitar Player

Best quote of the week:

In any free society, the conflict between social conformity and individual liberty is permanent, unresolvable, and necessary. Kathleen Norris, novelist and columnist (1880-1966)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Baseball finally, the massive output of Georges Simenon, and the need for some creative thinking: newsletter, July 24, 2020


First this from two weeks ago:

Erasing history?

A librarian friend of mine recently wrote this:

I just helped a woman find kids’ books on the Civil War. She told me, as we were wrapping up, her arms loaded with cool histories and historical novels, that she wanted to read them to her grandkids “while they’re still here.”
I made a polite noise, thinking she meant before her grandkids grow up and don’t want to be read to. But she went on, “I’m just afraid, with everything going on, they’ll disappear from the library.”
Growing suspicious, I said, “Well, yes, when school starts back up, in whatever form, these books will be in demand for sure.”
She persisted, “Well, no, I mean, with all the stuff, you know. With the statues being taken down, I’m just afraid these books will be taken out of the library.”
So there you have it: People are so paranoid about some racist statues and team names that they think actual history books will be censored out of public libraries. That’s the slipperiest snowflake slope I ever slipped across.

What’s going on right now, of course, is not “erasing history,” as some alarmists would have it. It’s changing perspective. That’s something we should all be willing to do now and again.

And then this, from last week’s newsletter:

Dan C.: A quick note to your librarian friend. Ask her if her Library still has Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in their original form? Over the last decade, many Libraries and school boards across the country have removed Mark Twain’s originals and replaced them with heavily edited (I should say censored) versions. The banning of these literary classics is the same thing that happened over a hundred years ago when they were first published. Your librarian friend was not worried about books disappearing, but movies and TV shows are disappearing from streaming sites in growing numbers. I agree with Idris Elba, the Black actor who says they should not be removed. Instead, they should be provided with content warnings. 

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