The bronze memorial that straddles Commonwealth Avenue depicts William Lloyd Garrison in his leather desk chair, a set of crinkled papers in his right hand, and piles of quills, books, and ink stands stored beneath his seat.
Letters represented the bulk of his life’s work as a relentless advocate for universal equality, and more specifically, the emancipation of slaves and women’s suffrage. In the first issue of Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, published in 1831, he wrote that “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard,” words emblazoned across the side of his memorial statue. The editorial also derided “the apathy of the people, [which is] enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”
Born and raised in Newburyport, MA, Garrison was the son of immigrants from the British colony of New Brunswick, and he expressed an early interest in journalism and social justice. At the ripe age of 13, he began an an apprenticeship with the Newburyport Herald, writing articles under the pseudonym Aristides (an Athenian statesman whose nickname was “the Just”).
Garrison’s most prominent work as editor of The Liberator sometimes caused rifts within the abolitionist community, due to his uncompromising moral compass. He was unwilling to negotiate anything less than the “immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves,” an opinion that ran counter to others who called for a more gradual approach to reform. His insistence that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document temporarily disrupted his alliance with Frederick Douglass, who adopted the view that it could be interpreted as anti-slavery. Following the Civil War and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Garrison published the last issue of The Liberator in 1865, and shifted his focus towards women’s rights, founding organizations like the American Woman Suffrage Association and the first-ever National Women’s Rights Convention.
Garrison and his wife, Helen Eliza Benson, raised their family in the town of Roxbury, MA, and many of his children and grandchildren followed in his footsteps, serving as editors at literary magazines like The Nation and founding members of activist organizations such as the NAACP. Garrison passed away at his daughter’s home in New York City on May 24, 1879 after battling kidney disease, and he is buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. His memorial sculpture was initially proposed by prominent citizens such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was dedicated in 1886.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.