Museum professor publishes book on antislavery

Dr. Julie Holcomb poses with her new book, "Moral Commerce." Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

By Kayla Farr | Reporter

One thing on a few people’s bucket list is to write a book, and museum studies professor Dr. Julie Holcomb did just that. Her book “Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy,” was published Sept. 1.

Holcomb has spent the last 10 years working on this book. She said she had to come to a stopping point in her doctoral dissertation but wanted to compile more information on that topic for a book, which ultimately resulted in “Moral Commerce.”

“I was interested in [the] Civil War, particularly in the abolitionist movement,” Holcomb said. “So I was thinking, ‘What can I do that hasn’t been done in terms of the Abolitionist Movement?’ I had done some research for a class and had written a paper about Florence Kelley and the National Consumerist League, which was a progressive era organization promoting humane conditions in the workplace. She was an activist in the consumer workplace; her Aunt Sarah boycotted slave labor goods. I thought that was an interesting connection and started tracing this out. I learned there was a lot more to do about this boycott of slave labor than I had realized.”

Holcomb’s personal friend Michael Mattick said the book was riveting.

“It opened a window on a part of history that I was only remotely aware of, so I was aware of the importance of the sugar/slaves/rum trade during that time frame,” Mattick said. “The book goes into detail about the cost and the effect of the British boycott of slave-produced sugar.”

The book covers material from a time period spanning the late 1600s to post-Civil War, as well as most of the geographic world.

The book begins with information about protests against antislavery and then expands to include boycotts of the use and products of slave labor, according to Cornell Press, the book’s publishing company.

“There were some that were arguing that as Christians, we should not be trading or holding African slaves, and there were a few that said we shouldn’t even be buying goods produced by slaves,” Holcomb said. “Even if we don’t own them, we are still perpetuating slavery even if we are buying goods made by slaves.”

The argument, she said, begins with Quakers in the 18th century and analyzes multiple sides of the issues.

“What I am doing is, I am looking at all of these people, looking at the arguments they made at boycotting the products of slave labor as a way of abolishing slavery. They made moral arguments and economic arguments,” Holcomb said.

Mattick, who is a logistician and has a background in geography, said Holcomb’s book is a comprehensive look at the Free Produce movement.

“The insight the book provides of the time and influence of the Quakers is well worth the read,” Mattick said.

In addition to the expansion on her dissertation work, Holcomb said she visited Philadelphia and Boston to research her book.

“There is a major antislavery collection in Boston,” Holcomb said. “I didn’t have to travel internationally; but I am working on a project that came out of this, so perhaps there will be a chance to travel internationally in the future.”

After working on the book for so long, Holcomb said she was happy to finish it.

“I was very excited to finish the book,” Holcomb said. “I think my husband was more excited than me. He has been living with this for just as long as I have. I am very relieved.”