#OneBookWednesday: A Closer Look at Philadelphia's Abolitionist History

By Peter R. RSS Wed, March 2, 2016

This year’s One Book, One Philadelphia featured selection—Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier—takes place in the challenging terrain of the North Carolina mountains, set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Our own city features only in a scene in which Union soldiers from Philadelphia, starving for food, rob a poor woman and her baby of their only sustenance. Not our proudest moment …

So last Thursday’s event at the Philadelphia History Museum was a nice opportunity to see the more positive role some Philadelphians took during the Civil War era. The event highlighted Philadelphia’s history of abolitionist and anti-slavery efforts—including their modern-day incarnations. Did you know that the Pennsylvania Abolition Society is still around today? These days most of its efforts go into preserving the artifacts and stories of the historical movement. Many of the items in the Museum’s collection were found and preserved thanks to its work, and some are artifacts from members’ early efforts.

The Museum’s Quest for Freedom, a program in honor of Black History Month that explores Philadelphia’s anti-slavery and Underground Railroad movements, uncovers the stories behind selected objects and documents in the Museum’s collection. The items featured include Pennsylvania Abolition Society membership certificate and an early declaration for emancipation printed on silk (which is apparently how you proved you were a good printer back in the 1850s and ‘60s). Abolitionists also hosted free-labor markets and fairs, at which all of the items for sale were from non-slave sources—including a child’s outfit from one of these shops in the Museum’s holdings, still with its 15 cent price tag. It is reminiscent of the calls for Fair Trade coffee and other ethical consumption labeling efforts today.

At the event, museum staff shared the true story of Jane Johnson—the slave of America’s ambassador to Nicaragua, and the inspiration behind inaugural One Book featured selection The Price of a Child, by Lorene Cary. Jane was rescued in part with the help of Passmore Williamson, co-chair of the Vigilance Committee, which worked to subvert Fugitive Slave laws. Jane and her two daughters were liberated from slavery, though Passmore Williamson was sentenced to 100 days in Moyamensing Prison, where he was frequently visited by local and national abolitionist figures, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

Although not all Philadelphians acted honorably during the antebellum era, our city does have a deep history of brave and intrepid citizens taking action in the face of injustice.

For a full list of events, visit our online calendar or download our printed guidebook

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