By Tim Jarvis
Worcester’s Liberty Farm is a National Historic Landmark, located at 116 Mower Street. The house, built in 1810, was home to Abby Kelley Foster (1810-1867) and Stephen Symonds Foster (1809-1881). By assisting slaves fleeing southern plantations and speaking up for civil rights, these two outspoken abolitionists and women’s right activists proved they were ahead of their time.
In addition to offering the Foster home as a shelter on the Underground Railroad, they refused to pay their property taxes to protest the fact that, as a woman, Abby was not allowed to vote. These acts of civil disobedience came with a price for the Fosters. Every time the farm was seized by the government for back taxes, friends and neighbors would buy the house and give it back to the couple. The property was a private house and therefore not open to the public. In 1974, it was named a National Historic Landmark, but to this day remains closed to the public.
Liberty Farm itself is a federal-style two by two and a half story brick house located in the suburbs of Worcester. Its main block is five bays wide, with a center entry sheltered by a portico supported by Doric columns. The doorway is edged with sidelight windows and on the top rests a fanlight. Later additions made to Liberty Farm sometime during the 20th century include an extending wood-frame to the right of the center block and a similar frame which extends to the back. Also, the interior is well-preserved with particularly elegant fireplace surrounds. The feature is one of the more distinguished parts of the house.
Abby Kelley Foster was a Massachusetts native born in Pelham. Raised as as Quaker, she first taught the faith at a Quaker school in Lynn. During the 1830s, slavery became an important issue to Foster, and would eventually lead her to her life’s work as an abolitionist. She took the radical view of immediate emancipation of all slavery, and became active in the local anti-slavery society.
In 1838, her time teaching came to an end as she moved on to activism. She left Lynn and made a new home in Worcester to start the next chapter in her life. Foster dedicated her career to ending slavery and the promotion of women’s rights.
During this year in her life, Foster made friends with the famous abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, social reformer, and American icon William Lloyd Garrison. He ran the divisive newspaper The Liberator, an abolitionist publication about Garrison’s work and the freedom of all Americans.
In 1838, Foster made her first public speech at an abolitionist convention in Philadelphia. Her speech was so moving that Theodore Weld, an architect of the abolitionist movement (1830-1844), demanded she keep the speech rolling after she finished, claiming, “Abby, if you don’t, God will smite you!”
During Foster’s early years as a reformer she focused on more than just abolitionism; she also demanded equal rights in society for African-Americans and women. This was a step further than most abolitionists were willing to go. A figure like Foster in the city of Worcester brought progressive ideas to the industrialized city. Among her allies were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — perhaps the most famous figures of the suffrage movement.
The 1840s were arguably the height of Foster’s activism. In 1840, the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society elected Foster as a member. Both for Foster personally and for the suffrage movement on a whole, this election was groundbreaking. Conservative members in the American Anti-Slavery Society disapproved of women in leadership roles, making Foster’s membership a significant achievement. Soon after, Foster traveled widely across Northern United States to both protest slavery and spread the women’s rights movement.
It was at this point of her life that Abby met her husband, Stephen Symonds Foster. Stephen was himself a vocal abolitionist, and in 1845 they were married. Stephen Symonds Foster grew up in New Hampshire, where he began his anti-slavery activism. He too worked with Garrison at the time Abby did.
Both were in demand as lecturers, but in 1847 the couple purchased Liberty Farm. They immediately opened the house to slaves escaping north on the Underground Railroad. In the same year, their only child was born, forcing them to reduce the scale of their activism. But the Fosters ran one of the most prosperous farms in the area and continued to use it for their political missions.
During its time as a shelter on the Underground Railroad, Liberty Farm housed thousands of escaped slaves seeking their freedom. The Foster’s actions were directly responsible for the freedom of generations of African-Americans to come.
When the Civil War ended on May 9, 1865, the Foster’s attention shifted elsewhere; they saw their fight against slavery as a success. Abby restarted her lecturing campaign about equal rights and the enfranchisement of women. The crowds she spoke to were in awe of her, as most had never seen a woman speak publicly before in their lives, not to mention on the matter of women’s rights.
Although they were too sick to lecture in later years, Abby and Stephen still managed to voice their opinions regarding Abby’s, and all women’s, inability to vote from 1874-1879. The Fosters lived at Liberty Farm until Stephen’s death in 1881, after which Abby lived with her sister in Worcester. A few years after, on January 14, 1887, Abby died as well. leaving the Liberty Farm legacy behind. In honor of Abby’s virtuous life work, The Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public School opened in Worcester in 1998.
The Fosters are a part of Worcester’s history, and American history on the whole. Their fearless actions of civil disobedience were of the same caliber as those of the Founding Fathers. The Fosters were an instrumental part in achieving the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women in American society.