On November 10, 1836, delegates from southeast Michigan gathered at the First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor for an ‘Anti-Slavery State Convention.’ After two days, delegates established the Michigan State Anti-Slavery Society, adopted resolutions denouncing slavery, and decided to publish an antislavery newspaper. Purchasing a printing press and selling subscriptions in the Michigan Territory was challenging – and risky.
In the fall of 1837, newspaper publisher Elijah Lovejoy was attacked by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois. Lovejoy was shot and killed when he refused to give up his printing press. Antislavery lecturers in Michigan faced angry crowds throughout the 1830s. In spite of the difficulties, brothers William and Nicholas Sullivan published the first antislavery newspaper, American Freeman, in 1838 in Jackson, Michigan. The following year, Seymour Treadwell agreed to act as the editor and publisher of the Michigan Freeman. Both newspapers were issued only sporadically.
Theodore Foster and Rev. Guy Beckley launched the Signal of Liberty in April 1841 and managed to go to press nearly every week. The printing office was located on the second floor of Josiah Beckley’s mercantile shop on Broadway Avenue in Ann Arbor. Guy Beckley helped in his brother’s store and worked tirelessly to promote the newspaper. Theodore Foster was co-editor and publisher of the Signal of Liberty until 1848.
Foster and Beckley were strong abolitionists who wrote in the Signal of Liberty of helping people escaping from slavery. The editors interviewed self-emancipated men and women, hoping to arouse sympathy for abolitionism. They published the story of Robert Coxe, helpless to stop the beatings of his sister and mother, grief-stricken as his family was sold and separated. The newspaper covered the “kidnapping outrages” of African Americans in Detroit, Marshall and Cass County, Michigan.
The Signal of Liberty achieved its goal of bringing the issue of slavery into the hearts and minds of the people. Nearly every issue included an antislavery poem, national news, and local notices. Minutes from antislavery meetings reveal a proliferation of organizations across the state and a growing desire to see slavery end in America. The events and movements described in the Signal of Liberty help us understand the issues that led people to resist slavery, change their churches and political parties, and fight for freedom.