In our time, slavery hides its nature. It’s insidious, criminal, hidden from the view of Americans. And because it’s no longer legal, many of us are unaware that it even exists. But it does, and millions of people still live in captivity, unable to earn a wage or escape their owners. Slaves still live even in the United States. It could be happening to someone you see every week: someone of any color or age.
I’ve spent the last five years writing the story of a family who fought legal, race-based slavery in the nineteenth century before the Civil War. The Hanbys were abolitionists, running dangerous missions to aid fugitive slaves by night while they led ordinary middle-class lives by day.
Why did they feel compelled to help people they had never met?
Because William Hanby spent his youth as an indentured servant under a cruel master. He was subject to many of the same torments as if he had been a slave: hunger, beatings, humiliation. Eventually, he had to escape across the countryside, where he suffered from exposure. He was taken in by a congressman’s kind wife, who sheltered William and assisted him to find freedom.
Whenever William Hanby talked about that woman, even decades later, he had to choke back tears. And all his life, he was inspired to show others in bondage the same compassion she had shown him. A man of deep faith and a minister, he believed he had to put God’s law above human law, if the two conflicted.
Now the common term for slavery is “human trafficking.” It sounds almost harmless, compared to the vile, horrifying practice called slavery. But whatever we call it, the end result is the same. Human beings are deprived of their freedom, unable to earn money for their work but earning only for their “owners.” And though the sexual side of slavery has received much attention in recent years, that is by no means the only form of slavery in the twenty-first century. Enslavement happens in any industry or country in which it can go unnoticed or unchallenged: in agriculture, domestic labor, even in factories. Men, women, and children all live in slavery.
In many countries, government officials turn a blind eye to it. They even protect some of the powerful slavemasters and traders. You can see stunning eyewitness evidence of these corrupt, calloused practices in Bought and Sold: An Investigative Documentary about the International Trade in Women, available for instant watch on Amazon.
But there is hope, because many Christians and other ethical people have begun to turn their attention to this immense violation of human dignity and worth.
Some might ask how we can possibly combat such a vast evil, how we can ever hope to bring it down when powerful, wealthy interests are supporting it.
The situation was no more promising in the nineteenth century. Both the United States government and hundreds of thousands of rich planters backed slavery. How were a few scraggly ministers and ex-slaves going to go up against that kind of power?
William Hanby’s son Ben Hanby grew up to inherit his father’s commitment to abolition, as well as his passionate faith and vocation to the ministry. But Ben was also a gifted musician and composer, and a college graduate in Ohio in the years just before the Civil War began. The Hanbys were by no means wealthy—they did not rub shoulders with tycoons. But Ben Hanby did something amazing, something that helped turn northern Americans against slavery.
He gave the slaves a voice.
Ben wrote a song called “Darling Nelly Gray,” written in the first-person viewpoint of an enslaved man mourning the loss of his love, who has been sold away from him. It was a massive hit, sung all around the country. They called it the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of song.” And because Ben provided a voice to sing of the worth of an enslaved human soul, hundreds of thousands of people were persuaded that something must be done. They wanted to end slavery.
We have an abolitionist movement today. Ordinary people are making strides against the evils of slavery. They are freeing captives. They are holding corporations accountable for owning factories in poor countries—factories where enslaved people are working.
But just as in the nineteenth-century abolition movement, slavery can only be stamped out in our time when a critical mass of people is persuaded to lift their voices on behalf of the voiceless.
You can be one of those people. There are many ways to fight twenty-first century slavery.
To discover some of them, try the Underground Church Network. On their annual Freedom Sunday, thousands of churches engage in worship and prayer, informing their congregations about slavery. Or try this list of 21 ways to help at the A21 Campaign.
The history of the Hanby family comes from Choose you This Day, by Dacia Custer Shoemaker, a publication of the Westerville Historical Society available through the Hanby House museum.
My novels Sweeter than Birdsong (2012) and Fairer than Morning (2011) are inspired by the abolitionist victories of the Hanbys, their deep personal faith gained through adversity, and the unusual women they married who joined the fight against slavery.