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An abolitionist recalled

William Lloyd Garrison to be honored at literary festival in Newburyport

Frank Garrison in Newburyport with the statue of his great-great-grandfather. Frank Garrison in Newburyport with the statue of his great-great-grandfather. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2011

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NEWBURYPORT — Protests, memorials, and campaign rallies come and go in Brown Square. Next weekend, the sixth annual Newburyport Literary Festival will honor the man who stands tall in the middle of it all.

The statue of abolitionist hero William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) has stood in the square since 1893, announcing: “I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard.’’ Marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the festival will honor Garrison with the theme “The Freedom Narrative.’’

“All men and women are created equal. He was very clear about that, and this was the problem he created, because other people wanted to negotiate it,’’ said his great-great-grandson Frank Garrison, who grew up in Lincoln and has lived in Gloucester since 1975.

“He was such an amazingly strong voice in abolitionism and also women’s suffrage. He just would not stop,’’ said festival cochairwoman Vicki Hendrickson. “I think people need to be reminded that there were some real courageous people out there working toward something that was just.’’

Frank Garrison will introduce Friday night’s opening ceremony honoring his ancestor with a discussion by historians Ellen Fitzpatrick, Kate Clifford-Larson, and Lois Brown. On Saturday, scholar Paul Finkleman will speak on “A Covenant With Death and an Agreement in Hell: William Lloyd Garrison’s Constitutional Theory.’’

Several other events will focus on the abolition and civil rights movements and writing about historical events. Sat urday’s closing ceremony will feature poets, musicians, and actors in an evening of readings and music inspired by the America of 1861, as well as a recitation of President Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address.

As usual, the mostly free event at sites all around downtown Newburyport will feature appearances by dozens of novelists, nonfiction writers, and poets, including locals Andre Dubus III and Aine Greaney and Pulitzer prize winner Paul Harding. Local historian and writer Bethany Groff will speak on “Dirty, Sexy Newbury: Love, Death, and Barnyard Brawls in Early Newbury History.’’ Organizers of the all-volunteer festival hope to attract at least the 3,500 people they estimate turned out last year. This year’s 80 participating authors is an all-time high, Hendrickson said. (The complete schedule can be seen online at www.newburyportliteraryfestival.org.)

Frank Garrison, a carpenter who works primarily on old homes, always knew his family’s history. It wasn’t entirely a coincidence that he and both of his brothers found ways to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until an event at Smith College’s Garrison Hall in the 1980s, though, that he really clicked with his heritage. Smith holds much of the Garrison archives, and some old family photos were put on display, including a studio portrait of William Lloyd Garrison and his four sons, probably dating to the 1870s.

“I look like all of ’em,’’ Garrison said, pointing to his beard and glasses and high forehead. “These genes run deep.’’

He got copies of the photo and sent them to his brothers, and from that point on, he “sort of got the bug’’ and began to study up on his ancestors. “I realized I’d been missing something here. I thought it didn’t touch me, but it does.’’

Lloyd Garrison, as he was usually known, was born on School Street in Newburyport. His father, a seaman, abandoned the family when Lloyd was a toddler. Garrison’s mother moved them to Lynn and then to Baltimore, but ultimately sent Lloyd back to Newburyport. By 1819 he became a printer’s apprentice at the Newburyport Herald and eventually began to write. Perhaps just as important, he was taken into the Summer Street home of editor Ephraim Allen, where he found friends, a father figure, and an extensive library, which he devoured.

“He was evolving as an individual here. He got a lot of support even from the point of being a total outcast, a nobody, an indentured servant,’’ said Frank Garrison.

By 1831, Garrison had begun to publish The Liberator in Boston, the abolitionist paper that would live on until the end of the Civil War and make him a national figure.

Garrison’s support of women’s rights as well as abolition “was really remarkable for that period of time,’’ says Clifford-Larson.

“Abolitionists wanted to end slavery, but not all of them would have welcomed African-Americans into their homes or believed that they should have equal rights. Lloyd Garrison believed it deep into his core,’’ she said. “He was one of the most powerful and most effective antislavery voices. . . . He was someone people looked to and respected, and of course Southerners hated him with a passion.’’

Many of Garrison’s descendants also fought for various kinds of social justice, Frank Garrison said. “I am very humbled by my ancestors and the impact they had on this society.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

Notable events on Saturday’s schedule:
The Book Rack, 9 a.m.: Brunonia Barry reads from “The Map of True Places.’’
Firehouse Center for the Arts, 10 a.m.: Paul Harding reads from
“Tinkers.’’
City Hall, 10 a.m.: Dyke Hendrickson presents “Migration and Mill Cities in the late 19th and 20th Century New England.’’
The Book Rack, 10 a.m.: Aine Greaney reads from “Dance Lessons.’’
Jabberwocky Bookshop, 10 a.m.: Tom Ryan and Atticus Finch present “Following Atticus.’’
Old South Church, 1 p.m.: Linda Barnes, Gerry Boyle, and Hallie Ephron discuss “Building a Mystery.’’
Unitarian Universalist Church,
1 p.m.: Andre Dubus III reads from “Townie.’’