I am Irish and I shall ever be, said the woman who campaigned to end slavery

Born in Wexford in 1863, Kathleen Simon became a prominent opponent of slavery

In 1938, the Chicago Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, wrote a letter of admiration to an Irish woman for her stance against racism. Kathleen Simon (née Harvey), to whom the letter was addressed, was well-known as a prominent opponent of enslavement and also spoke out against lynching in America.

Writing to Simon, NAACP members wrote: “We cannot tell you how deeply we appreciate the earnest sympathy of such a person as yourself”. Responding to the letter, Simon said: “Injustice or oppression to ANY race rouses me to fierce indignation.”

So how did an Irish woman find herself among the most respectable names in anti-racist activism in the interwar world?

Kathleen Harvey was born into a wealthy Wexford family 1863 and educated in Dublin. According to author Sybil Oldfield, Kathleen later "ascribed her love of liberty and hatred of servitude" to the influence of her parents. In 1885, Kathleen married Thomas Manning, a doctor from Co Kerry. Together, the couple emigrated to the US state of Tennessee.

In her personal narrative of her conversion to the anti-slavery cause, Kathleen placed a particular emphasis on her encounters with racism in the US south and one event in particular. Attending a gathering, Simon witnessed Amanda, an African American girl, being ignored by other attendees. After asking why Amanda was alone, Kathleen learned the girl was the child of formerly enslaved people.

In 1917, following the death of her first husband, Kathleen married the British Liberal politician John Simon. As Kathleen Simon, she would become known for her forceful opposition to slavery. In 1928, she joined the British Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection society and became a prominent member. A year later, she published Slavery, a study of enslavement. The book was dedicated to "Amanda of Tennessee and to all those who have suffered and still suffer in slavery". Responding to a critical review of her work in The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP, Simon was particularly perturbed by the review's reference to her as an English woman. Writing to the editor W E B DuBois, Simon declared: "I am Irish and I shall ever be".

In 1933, Simon took a leading role in marking the centenary of the parliamentary legislation that ended slavery in the British Empire. Simon was made a Dame of the British Empire in the same year. Historian Susan D Pennybacker wrote that this was “the crowning moment of Lady Simon’s career as an antislavery activist.”

Simon toured England, lecturing on the history of slavery and the abolitionist movement for her audience. She linked this history to her own contemporary crusade. Speaking in Hull, the birthplace of the anti-slavery MP William Wilberforce, Simon told an audience in November 1933 that she "wanted to rouse the people of England to their spirit of responsibility in connection with modern slavery". Making what the Hull Daily Mail described as a "fervent appeal", Simon said that "an international conscience had got to be awakened". Yet it was precisely the blind spots of Simon's own "international conscience" that drew comments from her sharpest critics.

In contrast to many other pioneers of anti-racist politics in the interwar world, such as the feminist Sylvia Pankhurst, the artist Paul Robeson and the poet Nancy Cunard, Simon did not denounce Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Simon believed that the Italian invasion could end slavery in the country, ignoring how fascist autocracy would be introduced. Her humanitarianism was guided by a belief in an imperialist “civilising mission”and a sense that her cause transcended political divides. This led her towards unsettling compromises and political dead-ends.

Already in 1930, shortly after the appearance of her book, DuBois articulated a critique of Simon’s biases in a personal letter. “I have no doubt at all of the sincerity of your desire to put down the crying wrong of slavery”, the leading African American intellectual wrote to Simon, “I do doubt the testimony of the English official class.”

Nor was Simon a supporter of interracial relationships. Pennybacker, whose work on Simon lucidly traces the unsettling aspects of Simon’s legacy, notes that this resistance emerged from Simon’s belief that such relationships brought what she calls suffering.

Both contemporary and scholarly criticisms of Simon’s international political vision echo the challenges made to her husband’s involvement in a disastrous initiative of the late 1930s: appeasement. “Peace for our time” was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous declaration in 1938, the year before the onset of a cataclysmic second World War. John Simon, Kathleen’s husband, was Chamberlain’s Chancellor for the Exchequer during the days of the 1938 Munich conference and appeasement.

The Simons ultimately navigated their causes through a politics of liberal internationalism that proved unable to effectively challenge the crises and tyrannies of their world. Lady Kathleen Simon died in London in 1955, the year after the death of her husband, with whom she shared her life and cause.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world

Read More

Recommended