Stories from PA History
The Struggle Against Slavery: The Abolition Movement and Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania
The Struggle Against Slavery: The Abolition Movement and Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania
Chapter One: The Fight Against Slavery

This is to ye monthly meeting hold at Rigert Warrells. these are the reasons why we are Against the traffik of men-body, as followeth: Is there any that would be done or handled at this manner? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life? How fearful & fainthearted are many on sea when they see a strange vassel. being afraid it should be a Turck, and they should be tacken, and sold for slaves into Turckey. Now what is this better done, as Turcks doe? yea, rather is it worse for them wch say they are Christians, for we hear that ye most part of such negers are brought heither Against their will & consent and that many of them are stollen. Now tho they are black, we can not conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones. there is a saying that we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are. and those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alicke? Here is liberty of conscience wch. is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of ye body, except of evildoers, wch is an other case. But to bring men hither, or to robb and sell them Against their will, we stand Against. in Europe there are many oppressed for Conscience sacke; and here there are those oppressed wch are of a Black Colour. and we who know that men must not comitt adultery, some doe comitt adultery in others, separating wifes from their housbands, and giving them to others. and some sell the children of those poor Creatures to other men. Ah! doe consider well this things, you who doe it, if you would be done at this manner? and if it is done according Christianity? You surpass Holland and Germany in this thing. This mackes an ill report in all those Countries of Europe, where they hear off, that ye Quackers doe here handel men licke they handel there ye Cattle. and for that reason some have no mind or inclination to come hither. And who shall maintaine this your cause, or plaid for it? Truely we can not do so, except you shall inform us better hereoff, viz: that christians have liberty to practise this things. Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, then if men should robb or steal us away, & sell us for slaves to strange Countries, separating housband from their wife and children. Being now this is not done at that manner we will be done at, therefore we contradict & are Against this traffic of men body. And we who profess
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First Protest Against Slavery in the New World, Germantown, PA, 1688.
Every one of the original thirteen colonies, including Pennsylvania, allowed slavery to exist within its borders. Unlike most of the other colonies, however, Pennsylvania contained a vocal antislavery movement, almost from the beginning of the colony's founding. In 1688, just six years after William Penn's arrival, a small group of German-born Quakers issued a stirring statement about the "traffick of men-body" that historians identify as the markerfirst protest against slavery in the North American colonies.
This stained glass window in the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church illustrates the history of the church, and includes a portrait of its founder, Richard Allen.
Stained glass window of Richard Allen, Morther Bethel AME Church, Philadelphia,...

Most wealthy Quakers in seventeenth-century Philadelphia, including William Penn, owned black slaves. But opinion in the colony slowly changed. It was partly about economics. Slavery was less profitable in the North, because the farms were usually smaller. It was also about faith. Fearing that slavery in America was increasing, the religious protests from Quakers, Methodists, and other denominations grew louder. Over time, the existence of a free black population also changed attitudes, as whites realized the contributions that free blacks made to society. And finally, the coming of the American Revolution introduced fresh ideas and attitudes about human equality.

For many of these reasons, Pennsylvania became the first northern state to adopt an emancipation law. Named the Gradual Emancipation Act, it was passed on March 1, 1780. The end of slavery was not immediate, though. Because the act was gradual, the new rules allowed masters to keep ownership of certain slave children until they were nearly thirty years old.
A Group of Philadelphia Abolitionists with Lucretia Mott [seated second from the right].
"A Group of Philadelphia Abolitionists," circa 1846.

New groups then came into existence to speed up the end of slavery and promote better lives for free blacks. In 1787, the markerPennsylvania Abolition Society was organized in Philadelphia with Benjamin Franklin as its president. The same year a black minister and former slave named Richard Allen founded the markerFree African Society, a charitable organization to help Philadelphia's poorer African-Americans. Later he formed markerMother Bethel A.M.E. Church, which became the flagship institution of the African Methodist Episcopal faith.
Oil on canvas of a profile of James Forten.
James Forten, possible attribution: Raphaelle Peale, circa 1810.

Other black leaders helped build additional churches and social associations. Over time, this process repeated itself in other smaller towns across the state. These institutions are important to the history of the Underground Railroad because they helped knit together a community of free black residents in Pennsylvania, dedicated not only to each other, but also to fellow African-Americans in slavery.

To understand what motivated black Pennsylvanians of this era, consider the example of Philadelphia businessman markerJames Forten (1766-1842). He was wealthy, one of the richest men, white or black, in Philadelphia. But instead of retreating into a mansion, or enjoying a lavish lifestyle, he devoted himself to the reform of free black society and the destruction of slavery. When abolitionists started up a national newspaper, he bought the largest block of subscriptions. He organized meetings and rallies and when everything else failed, he simply purchased slaves and offered them freedom.
A mob burned Pennsylvania Hall to the ground after a meeting of female abolitionists in 1838.
The Burning of Pennsylvania Hall, Philadelphia, PA, 1838.

Forten was not alone. Especially after the 1830s, an increasing number of white abolitionists, inspired by religious faith, took great risks to defeat slavery. They were convinced that enslavement was wrong and should be abolished immediately. markerLucretia Mott, a devout female Quaker minister who lived in Pennsylvania, spearheaded the formation of the markerPhiladelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Her organization worked with other abolitionist committees and individuals to persuade the public that slavery was evil and to help runaway slaves find new lives in the North. In Pittsbugh, markerJane Grey Swisshelm in 1847 became the first woman in the country to publish an abolitionist newspaper.

Neither activity was popular in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania, a place that bordered three slave states (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) and discouraged radical ideas about social change. When the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women held their annual meeting in Philadelphia's  markerPennsylvania Hall in May of 1838, an angry mob burned down the hall only three days after it opened.

By the beginning of the 1840s, the stage was set for confrontation. The opponents of slavery had grown stronger since 1688, but they were not yet confident of victory. Too many whites still feared and hated blacks. As states and federal government passed new legislation to protect the institution of slavery and further limits the rights of African Americans, more and more of slavery's opponents turned to open defiance of the law.

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