“On the improvement of the mind”, Elizabeth Jennings, 1837, Address to African American Women Abolitionist


The University of Detroit Mercy has a large collection of documents in the Black Abolitionist Archive that can be searched on the library web page. You can find the text of over a thousand speeches and editorials from the 1820′s to the Civil War on the site, some of which you can also listen to on an audio file.

It is not possible to list everything in the collection, so periodically there is a request to find something in the collection that is not posted. A research request came in looking for a speech by Elizabeth Jennings made at a meeting on the anniversary of the Ladies of the Literary Society, an African American women abolitionist organization, in New York City in September 1837. In honor of Black History Month, I am posting the article I found from Colored American, September 23, 1837. The microfilm copy will be hard to read, so I have transcribed the text for easier reading. It is a speech that is just as relevant now as it was back then.


“…It is now a momentous time that calls us to exert all our powers and among the many of them, the mind is the greatest, and great care should be taken to improve it with diligence. We should cultivate those powers and dispositions of the mind which may prove advantageous to us. It is impossible to attain to that sphere for which we were created, without persevering. It is certain we were formed for society..and it is our duty and interest to cultivate social qualities and dispositions-to endeavor to make ourselves useful and pleasingĀ  to others-to promote and encourage their happiness-to cherish the friendly affections, that we may find in them the source of the greatest blessings the world can afford.

But alas, society too often exhibits a far different scene, and this is in consequence of neglect of cultivation, which certainly is much more fatal than we can imagine. Neglect will plunge us into deeper degradation, and keep us groveling in the dust, while our enemies will rejoice and say, we do not believe they (colored people) have any minds; if they have, they are unsuceptible of improvement. My sisters, allow me to ask the question, shall we bring this reproach on ourselves! ..Doubtless you answer NO, we will strive to avoid it. But hark! methinks I hear the well known voice of Abigail A. Matthews saying you can avoid it. Why sleep thus? Awake and slumber no more–rise, put on your armor, ye daughters of America, and stand forth in the field of improvement. You can all do some good, and if you do but a little it will increase in time. The mind is powerful, and by its efforts your influence may be as near perfection as that of those which have extended over kingdoms, and is applauded by thousands.

Let us accord with that voice which we may hear urging us and resolve to adorn our minds with a moreĀ  abundant supply of those gems for which we have united ourselves-nor let us ever think any occasion, too trifling for our best endeavors. It is by constant aiming at perfection in every thing, that we may at length attain it.”