Historical Markers
Pennsylvania Hall Historical Marker
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Pennsylvania Hall

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
6th & Haines Streets, Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

The destruction of Pennsylvania Hall by a mob is symbolic of the incendiary nature of the slavery debate.
Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Hall, before and after its destruction in May,...
When opened on the morning of May 14, 1838, Pennsylvania Hall was the first building in the nation constructed specifically as meeting space for American abolitionists. Four days later, all that remained was smoldering ruins. Outraged at the public mixing of black and white men and women, a mob estimated at more than 10,000 people ransacked the building and then burned it to the ground as Philadelphia policemen and firemen stood by.  Shocking in its own right, the burning of Pennsylvania Hall was no isolated instance, but rather one incident in a rising tide of mob violence that rocked Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s, and that represented the growing tensions between blacks and whites, abolitionists and the defenders of slavery, and Nativists and immigrants.

By the 1830s, Philadelphia had re-emerged as a national center of the American abolition movement. Quakers had been leaders in the anti-slavery movement since the markerfirst protest against slavery, written in Germantown in 1688.  In 1776, Pennsylvania had become the first state to pass a law for the abolishment of slavery, and under the Pennsylvania constitution of 1790, African American men had the right to vote.  As Philadelphia’s black population and the abolitionist movement grew in the early 1800s, however, so too did white fears of African Americans, growing numbers of them refugees from slavery in the American South.  In 1834, the “Flying Horse” riot in Philadelphia resulted in the death of one African American and the destruction of several city blocks.  Four years later, Pennsylvania’s state constitution disenfranchised black males. 
A Group of Philadelphia Abolitionists with Lucretia Mott [seated second from the right].
"A Group of Philadelphia Abolitionists," circa 1846.

Unable to find suitable meeting space because of public fear and opposition, Pennsylvania abolitionists decided to build their own hall.  To do so, they created a joint-stock company, then raised $40,000 by selling 2,000 shares at $20 each to fund construction of “Pennsylvania Hall” on the corner of Sixth Street and Haines Street. When completed in May 1838, the building contained a great hall, lecture and committee rooms, a bookstore, and galleries. At the official dedication ceremony, Managing Board secretary William Dorsey explained that the hall would be open to “any purpose not of an immoral character.”
Ambrotype portrait,head and shoulders.
John Greenleaf Whittier, circa 1860.

The following morning, notices posted around Philadelphia called for citizens to “interfere, forcibly if they must,” with the second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, which was to open on Wednesday, May 16.  Among the attendees were many of the nation’s most prominent female abolitionists, including markerLucretia Mott, founder of the markerPhiladelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, Maria Chapman, Angelina Grimké Weld, and Abby Kelley.  That evening, while more than 200 women and men of both races participated in the second annual conference of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, a large crowd gathered outside the new hall, then began to holler and throw rocks through its windows. 

Undeterred, Angelina Grimké Weld delivered a powerful address, exhorting those in attendance to continue the meeting. "What if the mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting, and commit violence upon our persons?" she asked, "Would this be any thing compared with what the marker slaves endure?"  Lucretia Mott then advised the delegates not to be scared "by a little appearance of danger."

The abolitionists finished their meeting, then left together; men and women, and blacks and whites all in the company of each other-- which further incensed the mob outside. The next morning, the board of managers of the Anti-Slavery convention cancelled the remaining meetings and turned over the keys of the hall to Mayor John Swift, who locked the doors in the early evening hours, and told a crowd estimated to be in excessive of 12,000 people, to go home.   
A mob burned Pennsylvania Hall to the ground after a meeting of female abolitionists in 1838.
The Burning of Pennsylvania Hall, Philadelphia, PA, 1838.

 Ignoring the Mayor’s entreaties, the mob broke down the doors, smashed and ransacked the contents of the building, and then set the hall on fire, as the police stood by.  Fire fighters called to the scene then sprayed down neighboring buildings but refused to extinguish the flames engulfing Pennsylvania Hall.  Unsated by the damage they had already done, members of the mob then marched up to Thirteenth and Callowhill Streets where they attacked the Shelter for Colored Orphans. On Friday morning, just four days after it had opened, all that remained of Pennsylvania Hall were smoldering ruins. Undaunted, the female abolitionists held their final day of meetings in a schoolroom on Cherry Street.

Two weeks later, on May 30, the Hall’s Board of Directors resolved to sue Philadelphia County for the police’s failure to protect it from the mob, seeking damages of $100,000.  City officials responded by claiming that the abolitionists had provoked the riot by the "promiscuous s intermingling indoors and out of blacks and whites."  The case would drag on until 1841, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court finally granted the board an award of $28,000.  In the end, the stockholders collected only $2 per share. 

Uncowed by the sacking of Pennsylvania Hall, female abolitionists chose Philadelphia as the meeting place for the third Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women on May 1-3, 1839. After being rejected by multiple venues, they held their convention at the Pennsylvania Riding School and rebuffed the mayor’s entreaty to avoid walking in racially mixed groups in hopes of deterring violence. 

The 1839 gathering in Philadelphia was the last meeting of Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, but Pennsylvania women remained active in the abolition movement.  In the decades that followed, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society continued to work closely with other antislavery organizations and contributed thousands of dollars to the abolition movement and Underground Railroad by the outbreak of the Civil War. 
Riot in Philadelphia, July 7, 1844. Lithograph by James Baillie and J. Sowle after Buchholtzer, New York.
Lithograph of the July 7, 1844 Southwark "Bible Riot," Philadelphia County,...

The burning of Pennsylvania Hall remains one of the best-known riots in the history of the abolition movement, but it was only one of many riots that plagued both the “City of Brotherly Love” and the nation in the three decades preceding the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.  Mob violence exploded nationwide from some seven incidents in the 1810s to twenty-one during the 1820s and 115 incidents in the 1830s.  Philadelphia, in particular, emerged as a hotbed of confrontations due to the city’s rapid population growth and industrialization.  Mobs assembled to call for better wages and to battle over race, ethnicity, and religion.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Pennsylvania continued to be a battleground in the struggle against slavery. The infamous markerChristiana Riot in Lancaster County and the kidnapping of marker Rachel and Elizabeth Parker in Chester County in 1851, and the markerJane Johnson incident in 1855 ignited the passions of abolitionists and pro-slavery factions throughout Pennsylvania and the nation.

Despite the dangers, the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad expanded throughout Pennsylvania. Other Pennsylvanians, however, including President James Buchanan, remained firm supporters of slavery, an issue that would continue to divide Philadelphians during the Civil War.
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