Abolitionist action heroes: Operation underground railroad and the material cultures of philanthropy

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter examines the visual and material cultures of anti-trafficking NGOs through a case study of Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). It considers the organization’s appropriation of nineteenth-century abolitionist language and iconography, from references to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin to contemporary branded merchandise featuring stenciled images of Abraham Lincoln. The chapter builds upon existing critiques of the visual culture of anti-trafficking, such as documentary and fiction films, arguing that material culture offers a productive analytical lens through which to observe how organizations like O.U.R. conceptualize freedom for supporters. NGO branded merchandise like apparel signifies supporters’ commitment to the abolitionist cause, while the garments’ styles inflect attitudes and assumptions about moving the body to action. The chapter considers O.U.R.‘s promotional merchandise from the perspectives of its manufactured origins and its eventual consumption and use, arguing that material culture is an exemplary site where ideas about freedom (and its inverse) are perpetuated and reinforced. Such merchandise may also reveal connections between humanitarian NGOs and a range of exploitative labor practices-such as cheap garment production, demonstrating how these organizations value some forms of unfreedom over others.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDiverse Unfreedoms
Subtitle of host publicationThe Afterlives and Transformations of Post-Transatlantic Bondages
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781000708653
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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