Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Abolition in the Land of Lincoln

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 4:18 PM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
Abolition Institute co-founders Bakary Tandia, left, and Sean Tenner, center.
Abolition Institute co-founders Bakary Tandia, left, and Sean Tenner, center.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New group called the Abolition Institute forms in Illinois
  • It will tackle the issue of slavery in the West Africa country Mauritania
  • John Sutter: The group offers hope that things will change in Mauritania
  • The institute brings together veterans of the Save Darfur and Hotel Rwanda campaigns

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- "Abolition" isn't a word you hear much in 2013. It should be, though. And a group of modern-day freedom fighters in Illinois is resurrecting the term -- with its echoes of 1800s America -- to combat ongoing slavery in a faraway West African country.

The Abolition Institute, which launched its website on Monday, is a newly formed group trying to end slavery in Mauritania, a remote outpost in the Sahara where an estimated 10% to 20% of people are enslaved, according to a U.N. expert.

"There's just a special connection between Illinois, where President Lincoln and President Grant and President Obama are from, and Mauritania," said Sean Tenner, the group's co-founder, who also hails from Illinois. "(They're) different places, but with the same path."

Hopefully that path leads to universal freedom.

I traveled to Mauritania in December 2011 to report on the issue for CNN's Freedom Project. It's an amazing and gut-wrenching place, full of vast potential but struggling to break slavery's psychological chains. More than a year later, I'm left with a deep sense of hope and cautious optimism that Mauritania will be able to break them.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

Tenner and his nascent group are one reason for that. He saw the CNN report online in March 2012 and decided he wanted to do something to help abolish slavery in a country he'd never visited, in the name of people who he's mostly never met.

"To say it changed my life and changed other peoples' lives would be an understatement," he said.

The Abolition Institute has applied for 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit organization, Tenner said, but has not been granted that status yet. Its website lets users quickly petition the United States and other world governments to put pressure on Mauritania to prosecute slave owners "instead of protecting them." It calls slavery in Mauritania "one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time."

Mauritania: Slavery's last stronghold
'Help us to change our country'

Tenner assembled a well-connected board of directors to raise awareness about the issue and to collect funds for anti-slavery groups who work on the ground in Mauritania.

The board includes veterans of Obama political campaigns, the Save Darfur movement, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation -- as well as Mauritanian human rights activists who are now living in North America. Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda" and who is credited with rescuing 1,200 people during the 1994 genocide in that East African country, spoke at the Abolition Institute's grand opening.

Tenner, a 35-year-old from suburban Chicago, is following the path of many brave abolitionists in Mauritania -- several of whom I was lucky enough to meet.

Since our online project published last year, Biram Dah Abeid, head of one local abolitionist group, was arrested for burning Quornic texts he says condone slavery. Later, after being released, he was given the Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk by a human rights group in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Boubacar Messaoud, head of a group called SOS Slaves and one of the long-standing heroes of the country's abolitionist movement, has provided assistance to women who recently escaped slavery or who come from the enslaved class. Tenner had a Chicago Cubs jersey made with Messaoud's name on it -- and wants to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Tenner's first goal, though, is to make people aware that slavery exists in Mauritania, although government officials have denied its existence.

And he's smart to do so by forging ties between his state -- home to the American president who banned slavery and the country's first African-American president -- and a country in West Africa that continues to struggle for freedom.

"The more people around the world who are aware of the issue the more pressure will be generated on ... Mauritania," he said, "and the better the situation will become."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT