David Ruggles

David Ruggles

David Ruggles was bornin Norwich, Connecticut in 1810. After moving to New York City in 1829 he worked as a grocer.

Ruggles joined the anti-slavery movement and in 1833 began working for the journal, Emancipator and Public Morals. The following year he became America's first Afro-African bookseller when he opened a bookstore near Broadway. Ruggles also wrote several anti-slavery pamphlets including Extinguisher, Extinguished (1834) and Abrogation of the Seventh Commandment by the American Churches(1835).

Ruggles worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad (1835-38) and was one of those who helped Frederick Douglass when he arrived in New York. Douglass later recalled: "I remained but a short time in this distressed situation. I was relieved from it by the humane hand of Mr. David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never forget. I am glad of an opportunity to express, as far as words can, the love and gratitude I bear him."

Ruggles was also secretary of the New York Vigilance Society, an organization that helped defend African Americans in court.

In 1838 Ruggles became editor of the Mirror of Liberty. In 1846 Ruggles opened a Hydropathy Centre where he treated a large number of people including William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth. He also campaigned for the desegregation of private transportation.

David Ruggles, who according to Frederick Douglass, lost his sight in the early 1840s, died in Florence, Massachusetts, of a bowel infection on 26th December, 1849.

Primary Sources

(1) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

After my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me. The motto which I adopted when I started from slavery was this - "Trust no man!" I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust. It was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances. Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land, a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slaveholders, whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers, where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey! Say, let him place himself in my situation, without home or friends, without money or credit, wanting shelter, and no one to give it, wanting bread, and no money to buy it, and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay.

Thank Heaven, I remained but a short time in this distressed situation. I was relieved from it by the humane hand of Mr. David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never forget. I am glad of an opportunity to express, as far as words can, the love and gratitude I bear him. Mr. Ruggles is now afflicted with blindness, and is himself in need of the same kind offices which he was once so forward in the performance of toward others. I had been in New York but a few days, when Mr. Ruggles sought me out, and very kindly took me to his boarding-house at the corner of Church and Lespenard Streets.

Very soon after I went to Mr. Ruggles, he wished to know of me where I wanted to go; as he deemed it unsafe for me to remain in New York. I told him I was a calker, and should like to go where I could get work. I thought of going to Canada; but he decided against it, and in favor of my going to New Bedford, thinking I should be able to get work there at my trade.

(2) Graham Russell Hodges, David Ruggles (2005)

Abolitionists organizing the battle against slavery during the 1830s quickly mastered the potentials of the penny press and the post office in their campaign to compel Americans to examine their consciences about the South’s “peculiar institution.” The movement published millions of broadsides and introduced fiery newspapers advancing the cause. Its emotional exhortations convinced thousands of ordinary Americans to voice their anger at human bondage by sending nearly a million petitions through the mails, beseeching Congress to abolish slavery. Federal legislators had already passed a gag rule prohibiting such discussion. Former President John Quincy Adams, now a congressman, often raised the petitions on the floor, forcing opponents into embarrassing stipulations to table the letters. Undeterred anti-slavery citizens continued the cascade of pleas against any enlargement of the servile system. The movement survived violence, too, when anti-abolitionist rioters burned presses and killed one editor in Illinois in 1837. White editors William Lloyd Garrison and David Lee Child are widely known for their brave commitment to abolitionist publishing. Other than Frederick Douglass, far less is known about the courageous black journalists who strived to extinguish slavery.

David Ruggles, an African-American printer in New York City during the 1830s, was the prototype for black activist journalists of his time. During his 20-year career, Ruggles poured out hundreds of articles, published at least five pamphlets and operated the first African-American press. His magazine, Mirror of Liberty, intermittently issued between 1838 and 1841, is widely recognized as the first periodical published by a black American. Ruggles also displayed unyielding courage against constant violence, which eventually destroyed his health and career. His story reveals the valor required of a black editor struggling against the pitiless hatred of the pro-slavery forces and the yawning indifference of most Americans. Ruggles’ valiant work ran the spectrum of the work of journalists. He was an agent, writer, printer, publisher and subject. He was in fact America’s first black working journalist. His career epitomized the fusion of professionalism and activism, so characteristic of later black journalists, that would propel him to the center of racial conflict.

Ruggles was born in norwich, Connecticut, in 1810, the eldest of seven children of free black parents. His father, David Sr., was a blacksmith. His mother, Nancy, was a noted caterer and a founding member of the local Methodist church. Ruggles was educated at religious charity schools in Norwich. By the age of 17, he was in New York, first working as a mariner; in 1828 he opened a grocery shop. At first he sold liquor. Observing, as did other black abolitionists, the damage done to the black community by drink, he converted to the temperance movement. He advocated it in his advertisements in Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first black newspaper, which was published by Samuel Eli Cornish, a black Presbyterian minister.

By the early 1830s, Ruggles became involved in the growing anti-slavery movement in New York. White radicals, disenchanted by reform measures, now joined blacks demanding the immediate end of slavery. His grocery shop at 1 Cortlandt Street was the nation’s first black bookstore until a mob destroyed it. In 1833, the Emancipator, an abolitionist weekly, appointed him as its agent to canvass for subscribers throughout the Middle Atlantic states. By 1834, Ruggles was also writing regularly. That year, he published his own pamphlet entitled The “Extinguisher” Extinguished: or David M. Reese, M.D. “Used Up…” a satirical screed attacking the leading local proponent of the American Colonization Society. This organization, which roused fiery anger in Ruggles and other blacks, argued that the only solution for America’s racial problems was to ship all free blacks to Africa. However implausible this sounds today, the plan was very popular among whites in the antebellum United States. Yet blacks understood, Ruggles thundered, that the plan did not threaten the future of slavery. His self-published booklet was the first imprint by an African American.