By Mike LaBella
---- — He’s been dead 121 years, but John Greenleaf Whittier is still winning awards.
The New England Academy of Journalists has posthumously honored Quaker poet and abolitionist Whittier with its Yankee Quill Award for his historical contribution to journalism and civic life in 19th century New England.
The honor coincides with the 325th anniversary of the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead in Haverhill, which was built in 1688 by Whittier’s great-great grandfather, Thomas Whittier.
The Yankee Quill Award was established in 1960 to recognize the special lifetime contribution of New England journalists to their profession. It is the highest individual journalism honor in New England. A special historic category was created for the pioneers of journalism in 2003.
“Whittier is very deserving of this award as he and his friend and associate, William Lloyd Garrison spent much of their lives fighting to abolish slavery in this county,” said Gus Reusch, curator of the Whittier Museum and Homestead.
Garrison, the prominent American abolitionist, speaker and journalist, posthumously received the Yankee Quill’s historic recognition award several years ago. Now it’s Whittier’s turn.
Garrison, while serving as editor of The Free Press, was the first to publish a Whittier poem (“The Exile’s Departure’’) in 1826, and encouraged Whittier to write for and edit newspapers for a living.
Under Garrison’s encouragement Whittier joined the abolitionist cause and edited newspapers in Boston and Hartford.
“Both Garrison and Whittier fought slavery for most of their active lives and they did so at their own peril,” Reusch said. “Both escaped mobs — Garrison in Boston, and Whittier in Philadelphia, where in 1838 he was editor of the ‘Pennsylvania Freeman.’
“One of Whittier’s famous sayings was ‘no slave upon our land’ and that’s what he fought for,’” Reusch said.
Whittier was born in Haverhill in 1807 to John and Abigail Whittier and lived on the homestead for 29 years. Called “Greenleaf” by those in the household, Whittier also lived at the homestead with sister Mary Whittier, his brother, Matthew Franklin Whittier, and younger sister Elizabeth Whittier. Also living there were his uncle Moses Whittier and his aunt Mercy Evans Hussey.
At age 21, Whittier got involved with the anti-slavery society. At the time he arranged for Garrison to give a speech at the East Parish Meeting House on Middle Road.
“Whittier liked what he heard and he and Garrison joined forces,” Reusch said. “At one point while he was away his mother sent him a letter saying his Uncle Moses died, his father died, and Mary married and moved away and there were no men left to run the farm, so he returned for three years. He never liked farming. He wanted to be on the road with Garrison to end slavery.”
Whittier sold the homestead in 1836 and bought a four-room house in Amesbury.
“He wanted his mother and his family to be safe and close to the Quaker meeting house and made sure the property had no farm so he could get away with Garrison and keep on with the abolitionist movement,” Reusch said. “Whittier was the first to edit anti-slavery newspapers, which was unheard of in those days. It put him and Garrison in danger all the time.”
Reusch said Whittier and Garrison began their fight against slavery in the 1830s and continued it until the Civil War, about 30 years in all, going from city to city with Garrison giving strong abolitionist speeches.
“Whittier did the anti-slavery newspapers and poems, while Garrison was the public speaker,” Reusch said. “They went everywhere, including Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Concord, N.H., where Whittier got into big trouble.”
The abolitionists brought George Thompson of England to this country and in Concord, N.H., he gave a very fiery anti-slavery speech, but it wasn’t appreciated as the mob came after him and Whittier, who was with him, Reusch said.
“They escaped the mob and Whittier had to hide Thompson until he left on a ship to England,” he said. “At that time we had clothing mills along the river that used cheap cotton from down south and it was cheap just as long as they had slaves to do the hard work. The mill owners and workers didn’t want to end slavery as it would have meant the price of cotton would have gone way up.”
Whittier spent his later years at his home in Amesbury, where he wrote his most financially successful poem, “Snow-Bound” — his reminiscence of being a 10-year-old boy at the homestead during the big December blizzard of 1818.
Contemporary journalists receiving the Yankee Quill Award this year are: James Rousmaniere, recently retired editor and president of the Keene, N.H., Sentinel; Christine Chinlund, managing editor of the Boston Globe; Eliot White, publisher of the Meriden, Conn., Record-Journal, and Peter B. Lord, longtime environmental reporter and editor for the Providence Journal who passed away last year.
Awards will be presented at the annual dinner meeting of the New England Academy of Journalists on Oct. 10 at the Crowne Plaze Hotel in Natick.
Cynthia Costello, president of the Whittier Home Association in Amesbury, said the New England Academy of Journalists agreed to present Whittier’s awards to both the Whittier Home Museum in Amesbury and the Whittier Birthplace in Haverhill. The Whittier Home Museum will hold its fourth annual “Celebrating John Greenleaf Whittier” fundraiser and auction on Sept. 21 at the Maudslay Arts Center in Newburyport. For more information, visit www.whittierhome.org. For more information about the Whittier Birthplace, visit www.johngreenleafwhittier.com.
About The Yankee Quill Award
Established in 1960
Recognizes the special lifetime contribution of New England journalists to their profession
Highest individual journalism honor in New England
Special historical category was created for pioneers of journalism in 2003