David Ruggles: Abolitionist and Entrepreneur

David Ruggles, abolitionist
David Ruggles, abolitionist.

Public Domain

Abolitionist and entrepreneur David Ruggles was considered one of the most reviled freedom fighters of the 18th Century. A person who captured and returned freedom seekers once said that he would give “a thousand dollars if I had … Ruggles in my hands as he is the leader.”

Key Accomplishments

  • First Black American to own a bookstore in the United States.
  • Established the New York Committee of Vigilance.

Early Life

Ruggles was born in 1810 in Connecticut. His father, David Sr. was a blacksmith and woodcutter while his mother, Nancy, was a caterer. The Ruggles family included eight children. As a Black family who had acquired wealth, they lived in the affluent Bean Hill area and were devout Methodists. Ruggles attended Sabbath Schools.

Abolitionist

In 1827 Ruggles arrived in New York City. At 17 years old, Ruggles was ready to use his education and determination to create change in society. After opening a grocery store, Ruggles became involved in the temperance and anti-enslavement movements selling publications such as The Liberator and The Emancipator. 

Ruggles traveled throughout the Northeast to promote the Emancipator and Journal of Public Morals. Ruggles also edited the New York-based journal The Mirror of Liberty. In addition, he published two pamphlets, The Extinguisher and The Abrogation of the Seventh Commandment arguing that women should confront their husbands for enslaving Black women and forcing them to perform sexual labor.

In 1834, Ruggles opened a bookstore becoming the first Black person to own a bookstore. Ruggles used his bookstore to promote publications supporting the anti-enslavement movement. He also opposed the American Colonization Society. In September of 1835, his bookstore was set on fire by White anti-abolitionists.

Setting Ruggles’ store on fire did not stop his work as an abolitionist. That same year, Ruggles and several other Black American activists established the New York Committee of Vigilance. The purpose of the committee was to provide a safe space for self-liberated formerly enslaved people. The Committee provided self-liberated people in New York information about their rights. Ruggles and other members did not stop there. They challenged those who captured and returned freedom seekers and petitioned the municipal government to provide jury trials to enslaved Black Americans who had been captured. They also offered legal assistance to those preparing for a trial. The organization challenged more than 300 cases of self-liberated formerly enslaved people in one year. In total, Ruggles helped an estimated 600 self-liberated people, the most notable being Frederick Douglass.

Ruggles efforts as an abolitionist helped him make enemies. On several occasions, he was assaulted. There are two documented attempts to kidnap Ruggles and send him to a pro-slavery state.

Ruggles also had enemies within the abolitionist community who did not agree with his freedom-fighting tactics.

Later Life, Hydrotherapy, and Death

After working for nearly 20 years as an abolitionist, Ruggles' health was so poor that he was almost blind. Abolitionists such as Lydia Maria Child supported Ruggles as he tried to restore his health and relocated to the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. While there, Ruggles was introduced to hydrotherapy and within a year, his health was improving. 

Convinced that hydrotherapy provided healing to a variety of ailments, Ruggles began treating abolitionists at the center. His success allowed him to purchase property in 1846 where he conducted hydropath treatments.

Ruggles worked as a hydrotherapist, acquiring modest wealth until his left eye became inflamed in 1849. Ruggles died in Massachusetts after a case of inflamed bowels in December of 1849.