Thomas Wentworth Higginson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 22 December 1823 and died there 9 May 1911, on the verge of entering his tenth decade. In his lifetime, he was widely known as a man of letters and prolific essayist, a radical theologian, a suffragist and outspoken defender of equal rights for women, and a prominent abolitionist. Higginson obtained a degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1847 and later that year became pastor of Newburyport Unitarian Church. His liberal agenda, however, was judged too radical for his congregation, and after two years he was asked to leave. He went on to establish the Free Church in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1852. During this period he became actively involved in the abolitionist movement, suppporting John Brown in his raid on Harper's Ferry, West Virginia in 1859.
Higginson's committment to racial justice led him to volunteer during the Civil War as Captain for the Fifty-first Massachusetts Regiment. He abandoned this position for the chance to serve in 1861 as Colonel in the United States's first regiment of African Americans, the First South Carolina Volunteers (which later became the thirty-third U.S. Colored Troops). He resigned from the army in 1864.
After the war, Higginson settled first in Newport, Rhode Island and later returned to Cambridge. He became an active public figure, speaking at meetings of the Free Religious Association and serving as its president, as well as holding a seat on the Massachusetts Board of Education (1880-81). His correspondence with Emily Dickinson, the Amherst, Massachusetts poet whom he mentored and visited, spanned decades; Higginson went on to assist in the editing of her Poems in 1891 (with Mabel Loomis Todd), the event for which he is probably best remembered today.
Higginson's writings include: Does Slavery Christianize the Negro? (1855); Malbone: An Old Newport Romance (1869); Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870); Common Sense About Women (1882); Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1884); Cheerful Yesterdays (1898); Women and the Alphabet (1900); and Part of a Man's Life (1905).
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