Philadelphia is known for colonial history. But Philadelphia also was a hotbed of anti-slavery activity. Abolitionists, including both men and women, African-Americans and whites, often Quakers, worked together and separately to organize political and religious opposition to slavery. Some took direct action to aid escaping slaves in the secret organization called the Underground Railroad.
Philadelphia’s African-American Abolitionists
Philadelphia’s African-American leaders had significant roles in the abolitionist movement. Former slave Richard Allen founded the Mother Bethel Church and, with his wife Sarah, was involved in hiding, retraining, and educating freedom-seeking slaves, sometimes using the church as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Wealthy Robert Purvis devoted most of his time to the largely African-American “vigilance” organizations founded to aid fugitive slaves. James Forten, a wealthy sailmaker, supported abolition by buying the freedom of slaves, financing William Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, and operating an Underground Railroad station. An interracial group – including Forten’s wife and three daughters and Lucretia Mott – founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. William Still recorded interviews with hundreds of escaping slaves and published those accounts in his book The Underground Railroad.
Even before the Civil War, Philadelphia had a large free African-American population. As early as 1787, Philadelphia’s African-Americans organized the Free African Society, a spiritual and economic mutual aid group.
Philadelphia Quakers had significant abolitionist roles. Individual Quakers began advocating against slavery in 1688. The first American abolition society was organized in 1775 by an interracial group of mostly Quakers. Isaac Hopper was assigned by the Quakers to assist freed slaves and, together with African-Americans, began helping freedom seekers to escape slavery. Three generations of men and women in the Johnson family held abolitionist meetings in their house, now a house museum with tours that can be tailored for children.
Female abolitionist leaders
Women, both white and African-American, were abolitionist leaders. In 1838, Angelina Grimke spoke to the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women at a huge building constructed by abolitionists as a safe place to meet, Pennsylvania Hall. As the pro-slavery mob outside threw rocks, Grimke refused to stop: “What if the mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons — would this be any thing compared with what the slaves endure?” The next day, the mob burned down the building – only days after the building had opened. (The Grimke sisters’ work is fictionalized in Sue Monk Kidd’s bestseller The Invention of Wings.)
Philadelphia’s abolitionists were close allies of advocates for women’s right to vote. The abolitionist movement was the first opportunity for its female leaders to publicly make speeches and take political leadership. The feminist movement is rooted in abolitionism.
12 Years a Slave Was Not Fiction – Kidnapping in Philadelphia
Free African-Americans had a tenuous hold on freedom. The movie 12 Years a Slave told the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and finally rescued 12 years later. Tragically, Northrup’s story was not unique. As early as 1799, Reverend Absalom Jones and other black Philadelphians petitioned Congress to address the problem of free blacks being kidnapped in Philadelphia and sold in the South. By the 1820’s, historian Julie Winch explains that, in Philadelphia, “kidnapping free blacks had become a well-organized business venture.”
Exhibits in Philadelphia
Philadelphia’s abolitionist and Underground Railroad history is a fascinating part of our American heritage. Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876, a permanent exhibit at the African American Museum (7th & Arch), includes an illustrated timeline of events in the struggle to abolish slavery. Interactive video “interviews” with key figures may be easier for kids to grasp. The Independence Visitor Center has a one room exhibit summarizing key information about the Underground Railroad. A museum devoted in part to Underground Railroad history is at the Belmont Mansion in West Philadelphia. The Johnson House museum is in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.