Rowland Hazard was a well-known philosopher, politician and businessman, but he was proudest of something he did in the shadows: He released 100 African-Americans from New Orleans jails.
He was a rich, Rhode Island textile manufacturer, a founder of the Republican Party, the inspiration for the Interstate Commerce Act and an author of books on philosophy, economics and politics.
His efforts to free black people wrongly jailed were controversial for years. A friend had written a letter praising him for his actions; when his son published the letter, he left out Hazard’s name to protect him.
Rowland Hazard was born Oct. 9, 1801 in South Kingstown, R.I. His father, the first Rowland Harzard, founded the Peace Dale Manufacturing Co. in Peace Dale, R.I. It was named after his mother, the former Mary Peace. He grew up in Bristol, Pa., and educated in a Quaker boarding school in Burlington, N.J. After he left school, Rowland Hazard and his two brothers ran the family firm in Rhode Island.
Hazard’s grandson described him as genial and outgoing, but his manner hid a shy and reserved soul.
When Hazard was in his 30s, he was responsible for selling the company's products -- sackcloth, ready-made clothing, cheap shoes and something called 'Negro cloth' for African-American slaves to Southern planters. He spent winters in New Orleans selling to planters from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Many of the planters were his friends. So was the abolitionist William Ellery Channing.
His grandson, also named Rowland Hazard, described how his grandfather started the greatest effort of his life:
"In 1841, while in New Orleans, a respectable colored man of Newport, R.I., contrived to get word to my grandfather that he was detained in the chain gang,” wrote the grandson.
“In endeavoring to procure his release, my grandfather found that many free negroes were detained in the same way, deprived of their liberty and suffering great hardship. The only time he could see them was on Sundays and before sunrise or after sunset. For weeks he allowed himself only five hours sleep, and visited the jails of the city, collecting information about these unfortunate men."
Jacob Barker, an insurance lawyer, volunteered his help. He was a fellow Quaker from Swan Island, Maine, a financier and lawyer who had gotten a $5 million loan for the U.S. government during the War of 1812.
The first group was released from jail when one court decided a man could not be presumed to be a slave unless his blood was 51 percent black. Six men were brought to court to test the point; five were freed. Hazard was threatened with lynching.
In the Shadows
Wrote Hazard's grandson, "So intense was the feeling against him that his friends were afraid to address him by name, and a letter still exists addressed to "Mr. John Smith, at the residence of Mr. Barker, New Orleans, and inside the wrapper the proper address, Mr. Hazard. Many of the pathetic appeals from men kept for months in jail were addressed in the same way, sent to Mr. Barker's care, with no mention of Hazard at all."
The next winter, a New Orleans grand jury issued astonishing instructions to prosecutors. They were to proceed against some of Hazard’s planter friends for cruelty to the African-Americans.
William Ellery Channing wrote, "You and Mr. Barker teach us never to despair."
Rowland Hazard stopped spending winters in New Orleans, and the Southern market dried up for the Peace Dale Manufacturing Co.’s cheap cotton products. In 1849 the company started making woolen shawls and other high-end woolens.
Photo: Peace Dale Library by By JacobKlinger - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21810738.