Exploring the rich, overlooked history of Black animal activism
By Kitty Block
I recently wrote about how all people, no matter their circumstances, have an inherent connection with animals. The composition of the animal protection movement, however, has not always reflected everyone’s voice.
Recently our staff had the pleasure of hearing historian Paula Tarankow, who holds a doctorate in history, highlight the contributions Black Americans made in the founding of the animal protection movement in the U.S. In her scholarship, Tarankow explores the connections between the history of the animal protection movement in the U.S. and the emancipation and struggle of formerly enslaved Americans. Understanding this history is critical to making the animal protection movement more inclusive, and Tarankow’s research is quite illuminating.
The history is complex: The modern American animal welfare movement emerged in the wake of emancipation, and from the beginning, the movement’s leaders drew comparisons between human slavery and animal abuse. Tarankow’s research shows that using the experience of Black Americans as a metaphor for animal causes ignored the fact that Black Americans were still suffering the very real effects of slavery. In working with white animal advocates, Black animal advocates were typically discouraged from raising the subject of the racism they continued to experience in their daily lives, essentially forcing them to choose: If they wanted to raise their voices for animals, they would have to keep silent about racism to avoid making the largely white, middle-class “mainstream” of the early movement uncomfortable.
And yet Black reformers continued to advocate for animals even as they themselves continued to be denied their full humanity. Rather than use liberation from slavery as a metaphor for animal rights, Black reformers saw kindness toward animals as an extension of civil rights activism, emphasizing that kindness toward animals and kindness toward human beings were linked. One of the most prolific platforms for this work involved the Bands of Mercy program, of the Massachusetts SPCA. Bands of Mercy were humane education groups, and members participated in meetings and community service that centered around being kind to animals. Many participants were children who took lifelong pledges to be kind to animals and to try to prevent harm to all living creatures. Black advocates in several Southern states were highly involved with the program as teachers and organizers and worked as field agents. Texas Baptist minister F. Rivers Barnwell was one such leader. He approached kindness to animals as a social justice project and extended his condemnation of animal cruelty to other forms of oppression, such as white supremacy. He established Bands of Mercy, delivered humane sermons, promoted competitions at African American schools to build birdhouses to support wildlife and spoke to soldiers about the humane treatment of horses used in World War I.
Another Band of Mercy activist, the Rev. John Lemon of Virginia, dovetailed a message of kindness to animals with a discussion of structural inequalities and poverty. Lemon organized more than 500 Bands of Mercy and gave more than 800 school addresses, lectures and sermons across Alabama and Virginia between 1910 and 1927.
The Rev. Richard Carroll, a prominent South Carolina reformer who had been born into slavery, also established Bands of Mercy as he worked to create a more humane world in his work from around 1910 until his death in 1929. His son, Seymour Carroll, built on this legacy. Seymour campaigned against the use of steel traps for wildlife in South Carolina. Because he publicly acknowledged racism and economic inequality, his work was seen as a threat to many white Southerners. In 1923, in Princeton, South Carolina, after delivering a talk, he narrowly escaped being lynched.
Perhaps the most famous Black leader in the early animal welfare movement was a formerly enslaved man named William Key, who performed for hundreds of thousands of people along with his horse, Beautiful Jim Key. Their performances centered around the horse responding to prompts and requests from the audience, showcasing his intelligence. Key and his horse modeled human-animal relations not sustained through violence. A core part of their act emphasized that Beautiful Jim never felt the sting of a whip—instead, he’d been trained through patience, kindness, apples and sugar. By the end of Key’s career in 1909, more than a million children had taken the Jim Key Pledge to be kind to animals.
These early reformers taught many Americans about a deeper sense of compassion and caring, one that extended toward other people and animals alike. And yet the animal protection movement as a whole has not always acknowledged their incredible legacy.
At our family of organizations, we want to help the animal welfare community take more steps toward becoming a place where all animal advocates feel welcome. Our Diverse Fellows Program that we launched in August 2022 is designed as an 18-month career pipeline program to attract and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds into the field to gain transferrable skills and contribute to shaping the future of our programs. This is just one of the ways we are actively making strides to be inclusive of diverse perspectives to strengthen our movement.
Tarankow’s scholarship underscores that this lesser-known history from the origins of the American animal welfare movement is part of our shared history as animal protectionists. While the past—and present—can seem at times hopelessly fraught with injustices and inequalities, it’s heartening to remember the elements of our shared history that paved the way for today’s animal protection movement, and it’s essential that this history shape our future fighting for animals together.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.