Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) was an educated man with farming property, a fleet of ships and a successful shipping business on the coast of Massachusetts. He was an African American and an advocate for equal rights for African Americans. In the early 19th century, he envisioned a society that granted individuals equal rights regardless of race. He had an opportunity to request equal liberties for African Americans before the President of the United States and House of Representatives (Wiggins 1996, 58).
At the time, most African Americans were slaves without the right to own property, receive a formal education or vote. Believing that African Americans would be granted their freedom if they moved back to Africa, he devoted himself to causes supported by the African Colonization Society (ACS). ACS believed that African Americans should return to Africa in order to achieve liberties not granted in the United States. In the early 1800s, Cuffe made several trips to and from the United States to Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. In 1816, he took other freed slaves with him and established a community in Sierra Leone that granted African Americans the rights they were not given in the United States (Public Broadcasting Services 1998).
Paul Cuffe was a first-generation American born to an African father and Native American mother. His father, Cuffe (Kofi) Slocum was born in Ghana and became a slave of Ebenezer Slocum, a Quaker, of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. In the Quaker (or Friends) faith, slaves were treated as servants, brought to Friends Worship and educated alongside of others in the household. Cuffe Slocum was freed by Slocum's newphew, John, and married Ruth Moses, Paul’s mother. Moses was a Wampanoag woman from Massachusetts. At the time, children of Native Americans were free since Native Americans were not enslaved. Cuffe and Ruth Moses Slocum owned a 116-acre farm in Westport, Massachusetts. It was rare for African Americans or Native Americans to own so much property when most African Americans were still bound in slavery. They had 10 children: four sons and six daughters (Wiggins 1996, 47).
Because of his father’s ties to Slocum, Paul Cuffe learned to read and write and built many key relationships with members of the Quaker faith. Paul’s father died when he was 14 years old, and he immediately began working on several merchant ships in New Bedford, a port, rather than on his family’s farm. Through these experiences, he learned a lot about whaling and shipping and he eventually bought several ships of his own with his sister’s husband, Michael Wainer, a Native American. They quickly earned the respect of many Caucasian Americans through relationships in the Quaker faith and as businessmen with an African American crew (Stuckey 2004).
Cuffe used these relationships to begin taking a stand for equal rights for African Americans. He protested some of the tax laws in 1777. At the time, laws permitted government to tax African Americans, yet they were denied the right to vote – a right recently granted following the Revolutionary War (Wiggins 1996, 48). Cuffe also built a schoolhouse on his property for African American children who were being denied admittance to other public schools (Wiggins 1996, 52).
Abolitionists eagerly sought out Cuffe since Westport “had been a focal point of much philosophical discussion about slavery, abolition and the education of African Americans and since philanthropist Benjamin Rush and Quaker David Cooper had published dissertations on the rights and innate equality of all humans” (Wiggins 1996, 53). With the support of others and an aching desire for equal rights, Cuffe moved forward with his vision for Africa.
Paul Cuffe was more than 50 years ahead of his time by recognizing the need for African Americans to be granted personal freedoms and a voice in the United States government. During the early 19th century, he was uniquely wealthy for an African American and used his skills, intellect, ingenuity and relationships to advance important opportunities for minorities. “He was well known in Quaker abolitionist circles, both in the United States and England. He was wealthy, well educated for his times and articulate. He was a merchantman with an international reputation for success, honesty, and drive, yet he was ready to risk everything to pursue his dream ‘for the good of Africa’” (Wiggins 1996, 58).
Cuffe was an abolitionist and philanthropist. While he was investigating colonization in Africa, he learned of two African American boys who were orphaned. Immediately, he arranged for education and care for both of them. By valuing each person as an individual, he gained the respect of many as a philanthropist and a leader. “The breadth of his interest is consistent; he kept the various facets – marketing, Meeting tasks, education, family affairs, orphan children – full in focus at all times. The balance of his concerns is most impressive” (Wiggins 1996, 63). “The concerns of his people did not alone define his interests, but they were at the center of his life and accounted for much of his influence” (Stuckey 2004).
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Cuffe was unusually wealthy and educated for an African American in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He used this wealth and influence to promote equality and human rights for African Americans. Cuffe, alongside of the American Colonization Society, convinced Congress to acquire African property for free African Americans (Beckner 1995, 12). His support behind this movement helped advance thoughts and dreams of equality.
Cuffe was not only interested in creating opportunities internationally, but also found way to provide key opportunities in the United States. By opening a school on his own property, seeking care for orphaned children, funding projects of Friends organizations and taking his ideas to the House of Representatives, he sought civil rights in the United States as well. Philanthropically, he devoted himself to love for mankind on a personal, professional and political level.
Key Related Ideas
The abolitionist movement began informally during the American Revolution. The movement “attempted to achieve immediate emancipation of all slaves and the ending of racial segregation and discrimination” (Stewart 2004).
The American Revolution (1775 – 1783) was a war fought between the United States and Great Britain. The United States fought for freedom from Great Britain and the right to be an independent self-governing nation whose citizens were represented in national government. Following the war, the victorious United States granted Caucasian male citizens the right to vote in elections but did not afford the same right to African Americans, women, Native Americans and other minorities.
American Colonization Society was an organization founded in the early 19th century with a mission to allow freed slaves an opportunity to return to Africa. The organization was “founded by white slave owners… dedicated to moving free African Americans to African colonies in order to deflect their attention from the abolitionist movement in America” (Beckner 1995).
Quaker, or The Religious Society of Friends, is a religious denomination. They advocate equality for all humankind and peaceful action.
Slavery is an act of forcing people to work against their will, at times under violence or threatened violence, and without pay. Slavery was legal according to the United States government until the conclusion of the Civil War. This caused most African Americans to be held against their will by their owner.
Important People Related to the Topic
- James Forten (1766-1842): James Forten was an African American from Pennsylvania who purchased a successful sail-making business. Forten was a wealthy man who opposed the efforts of the American Colonization Society and supported the anti-slavery movement (African American Registry 2004/2005).
- George Fox (1624 – 1691): Fox was born in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, England. He rebelled against the Church of England and was arrested many times for his religious views. His beliefs later became known as the Quaker religion.
- Ebenezer Slocum (Birth and Death Unknown – 1740s): Slocum was an influential Quaker who bought Kofi (Paul Cuffe’s father) from Ghana. He lived in Dartmouth, Massachusetts and upheld Quaker beliefs that slaves were to be treated as equals, welcomed to Friends worship and educated alongside of others in his household. Slocum’s nephew, John, bought Kofi in 1742 and freed him within a few years (Wiggins 1996, 46).
- Kofi Slocum (Unknown birth – 1773): Slocum was Paul Cuffe’s father, born in Ghana and sold to Ebenezer Slocum as a slave. “Cuffe’s interest in Africa stemmed in part from his father’s having been born there” (Stuckey 2004).
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- African Benevolent Society was an organization founded in the late 18th century. It was designed to help young African American men obtain an education and place in the complex, oppressive white society (Wiggins 1996, 54).
- American Colonization Society was an organization founded in the early 19th century with a mission to allow freed slaves an opportunity to return to Africa. The organization was “founded by white slave owners… dedicated to moving free African Americans to African colonies in order to deflect their attention from abolitionist movement in America” (Beckner 1995, 12).
- Free African Union was an organization made up of small service businesses owned by African Americans. Established in 1780, this organization sought equal opportunities for businesses owned by African Americans.
- Quaker, or The Religious Society of Friends, is a religious denomination. They advocate equality for all humankind and peaceful action. Today, Friends Meetings take place in all over the United States. Cuffe named his international trading company “The Friendly Society” after his Quaker beliefs.
Bibliography and Internet Sources
- African American Registry. Philanthropist Paul Cuffe Championed Equality. https://aaregistry.org/story/philanthropist-paul-cuffe-championed-equality/
- African American Registry. James Forten: Abolitionist and Businessman. https://aaregistry.org/story/james-forten-abolitionist-and-businessman/
- Beckner, Chrisanne. 100 African Americans Who Shaped American History. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1995. ISBN: 0912517182.
- Boyd, Herb. Autobiography of A People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It. New York: Random House, 2000. ASIN: 0385492782.
- Grimm, Robert T., ed. Notable American Philanthropists: Biographies of Giving and Volunteering. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. ISBN: 1573563404.
- Public Broadcasting Services. Africans in America.
- Stewart, James Brewer. “The Readers Companion to American History: Abolitionist Movement.” Houghton Mifflin.
- Stuckey, Sterling. “The Readers Companion to American History: Cuffe, Paul.” Houghton Mifflin.
- Thomas, Lamont D. Paul Cuffe: Black Entrepreneur and Pan-Africanist. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986. ASIN: 0252060342.
- Wiggins, Rosalind Cobb. Captain Paul Cuffe’s Logs and Letters, 1807-1817: A Black Quaker’s “Voice from Within the Veil”. Washington
This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.