As we read about slavery and the Civil War from the perspective of those living in the South—with settings of North Carolina in Cold Mountain and Louisiana in Twelve Years a Slave—let’s take a moment to examine what was happening in our own Philadelphia during the antebellum era.
Philadelphia was and is often considered a center of the abolitionist movement during this time. During the Revolutionary era, when our country’s founders chose not to explicitly deal with the legal issue of slavery, Philadelphians were among the first to begin taking stands against this awful institution. The first American society dedicated to the abolition of slavery was founded in Philadelphia in 1775. The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, which later became the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, ultimately became the well-known Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS). Benjamin Franklin was even its president in 1787.
In 1775, the Yearly Meeting of Philadelphia Quakers banned bondage, calling on its members to free their slaves. This set a precedent for Philadelphia as anti-slavery, even before Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780—the first law of its kind, anywhere—which ultimately led to the elimination of slavery in Pennsylvania (although not until 1847, so let’s not pat our PA predecessors on the back too hard).
The Free African Society was formed in 1787 by Richard Allen, a freed slave, with Absalom Jones and other black community leaders, which provided aid to blacks freed from slavery. This organization was also instrumental during Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic in 1793.
Looking ahead to the mid-19th century, the Vigilant Committee, initiated by Robert Purvis in 1837 in Philadelphia, was formed to aid southern runaway slaves; it assisted nearly 900 runaways in the 1850s. And during the Civil War, wounded soldiers were brought to Philadelphia, where physicians set up make-shift medical sheds, using the Chestnut Hill Railroad Station and boat ports to transport the injured from the battlefield to these hospital sites.
But all of this progressive work does not mean that Philadelphia was a mecca of equality and peaceful race relations. In 1834, a group of white men set off a wave of riots against blacks living near Lancaster—and all were acquitted. Blacks were officially disenfranchised when Pennsylvania passed a constitutional clause in 1838 allowing only “white freeman” to vote.
Despite the societies working on their behalf, many black Philadelphians lived in poverty, forced to indenture their children to get by. And despite its work to aid blacks, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society did not actually admit any black members until 1842.
The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, in its entry on abolitionism by history professor Richard S. Newman, further explains Philadelphia’s uneasy stance on equality:
“The city had vast economic ties to the South and Atlantic world, connecting Philadelphians to the mighty engine of slavery. Brotherly Love was not always accorded to racial reformers—particularly African Americans and women. For a city steeped in notions of tolerance, that is a difficult reality to confront.”
He also explains the challenges abolitionists endured here:
“The infamous burning of Pennsylvania Hall (a newly built abolitionist meetingplace) in May 1838 reminded activists that seemingly tolerant Philadelphia supported a violent brand of anti-abolitionism. Viewing race reformers—rather than their foes—as disturbers of the peace, many Philadelphia leaders kept a wary eye on abolitionists for years to come.”
Information like this somewhat flips the narrative we are used to hearing about Philadelphia’s role in and stance during the Civil War era. As we prepare to discuss and analyze this period and its implications during our One Book season, it is critical that we also honestly reckon with our own city’s history—and how its citizens’ actions, both positive and negative, resonate with us today.