National Register Amendment
Independence National Historical Park
Underground Railroad and Anti-Slavery Movement
Prepared by Anna Coxe Toogood, Historian, INDE
Explanation of the Amendment
Congress passed legislation (H.R. 1635) in 1997 to "establish within the United States National Park Service the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, and for other purposes." This bill proposes to identify Underground Railroad sites both in and out of the National Park System. It maintains "there are many important sites which have high potential for preservation and visitor use in 29 States, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands." Each park will identify its own sites that help to tell the dramatic story of fugitives from slavery and those who assisted them in their flight to freedom. Another bill, H.R. 2919, under consideration by the Senate since July 2000, will provide 2.5 million dollars to establish a National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Freedom Center will work under agreement with the National Park Service to "pursue a range of historical and educational cooperative activities" related to the quest for human freedom as exemplified by the Underground Railroad story.
The PHSO Park History Program leader recommends that each park prepare National Register documentation for resources related to the Underground Railroad.
Statement of Significance for Underground Railroad Theme
The spirit of freedom that inspired the creation of the Underground Railroad in the 19th century had deep roots in Philadelphia. Quakers like Anthony Benezet and John Woolman came forward early in the 18th century as outspoken leaders in the international anti-slavery movement. The Revolutionary era inspired a new and broader anti-slavery effort in the city. While Philadelphia provided the central stage for the founding and growth of the nation following the war, it also led the development of a national abolitionist movement that eventually swept the country into civil war.
From the Revolution through the Civil War, the issues and problems of race and slavery manifested themselves at the local, state and federal levels of government in Philadelphia. National and state legislatures seated in today’s Independence Hall grappled with the rights and freedoms promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, but denied to those enslaved. Pennsylvania’s Assembly passed the nation’s first abolition act in 1780, reflecting the spirit of the American Revolution, but then in 1837 passed a law withdrawing free blacks’ right to vote. Mayors at times turned to the free black community for assistance and tried to protect fugitives from slavery.
During the Revolution some local civic leaders embraced the concept of freedom for all peoples. The white religious community, at first largely Quaker, joined forces with leaders like Benjamin Franklin, to establish and promote the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the first such society in the nation and the leader in mobilizing other societies in the north. As race relations polarized in the early 19th century, white leaders willing to stand up against slavery and the fugitive slave legislation that supported it, took ever-greater personal risks to extend freedom to all peoples in the United States.
Philadelphia’s free black community played a strategic part in the Underground Railroad. Their leaders served in the several anti-slavery societies that were founded in the city and established their own local black churches and institutions that offered a model of progress and improvement, while building an internal framework to help fugitives make their escape on the Underground Railroad. Philadelphia’s black leaders petitioned the national and state governments to end slavery and to reinstate their dignity and rights as American citizens. While their repeated public protest against slavery and racist legislation made no immediate impact in government circles, it did make its mark in the expanding abolitionist press. The black self-help institutions in Philadelphia provided a network and fellowship for fugitives seeking refuge on their way to the North, and moral support for captives on trial in the U.S. District Court on Independence Square. Finally, by their adoption of the great icons of the American Revolution -- the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell – the nation’s abolitionists, both white and African American, gained a powerful tool in the struggle to secure freedom and full citizenship for all peoples of the United States.
Underground Railroad Theme at Independence NHP
The Underground Railroad emerged in the 1830s as a term to define a secret network of people/shelters strategically located to assist fugitive slaves in their escape to freedom. At Independence National Historical Park, liberty is a central interpretive theme, but to date largely related to the struggle to free the colonies from Great Britain. A study of the park’s historic resources, however, readily reveals that the Underground Railroad has roots in Philadelphia’s diverse religious community and the Revolution’s Enlightenment concept that man’s natural rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The First and Second Continental Congresses adopted resolutions against the slave trade while seated at Carpenters Hall and then at the Pennsylvania State House on today’s Independence Square. In 1776, the Second Continental Congress offered the world the inspired Declaration of Independence, but at the same time edited out Thomas Jefferson’s scathing passage that accused King George III of waging a cruel war against human nature by perpetuating the slave trade.
Individual colonists, religious groups and states took up the Revolution’s spirited calls for liberty to address the problem of slavery. In Philadelphia just prior to war the popular sentiment against slavery gained strength when Benjamin Rush, a rising Philadelphia physician, published two widely distributed antislavery essays and Quakers required that their members free their slaves and cease any activity in the slave trade. But illegal kidnappings soon threatened the freedom for some newly emancipated slaves. To assist them a group of Philadelphia artisans, many of them Quaker, formed in 1775 "The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage," but this initiative dissolved during the war. In response to the war’s slogans and broadsides, slaves throughout the colonies fled bondage. In Virginia alone Thomas Jefferson estimated 30,000 slaves escaped. In Philadelphia some local slaves fled their masters and joined the British or American sides in hopes of gaining personal freedom. The Pennsylvania Assembly on today’s Independence Square hotly debated and passed the first Gradual Emancipation Act (1780) in the new nation, a landmark piece of legislation that served as a model for similar laws throughout the North.
The preamble of the United States Constitution claims "to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity," but this did not apply to the nation’s slave population. The fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, who met in the Pennsylvania State House, today’s Independence Hall, compromised on the issue of slavery to save the union. Although some urged an end to the slave trade and the introduction of controls over slavery, the Deep South, with the most at stake, stonewalled any reform efforts. The census of 1790 soon made obvious the reason for their resistance. The United States population included 694,280 slaves, most of whom (over 680,000) lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The North-South compromise in the final Constitution gave the southern states the right to count each slave as 3/5ths of a person for the federal census, which in turn determined the number of representatives they could send to Congress. The Constitution also postponed the end of the slave trade until 1808, a full 21 years into the future, and provided for the return of fugitive slaves to their owners.
The year 1787 also witnessed the creation of several reform organizations in Philadelphia, among them the renewed Abolition Society, retitled "The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the Colored Race." This society took the national and international lead in promoting the end of slavery in the United States. Benjamin Franklin was elected president and Benjamin Rush and Tench Coxe, secretaries, all three among the nation’s top intellectual elite. The Society led the way for the national convention of abolition societies that met in Philadelphia after the turn of the century.
In 1793, however, the U.S. Congress while seated in Philadelphia passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This federal legislation reflected the nation’s reactionary mood, in part due to the French Revolution’s violence and bloodshed, the introduction of the cotton gin, and the news of a slave uprising in Haiti. Congress imposed a fine of $500 on anyone assisting a fugitive or interfering with his capture. (Some southern states reinforced this act by adding even heavier fines, as well as hard labor for any abettor of a fugitive slave.) The act also specified that fugitive blacks were not entitled to legal defense or a jury trial and they could be returned into slavery simply by an oral claim from the supposed owner. This law led to more persistent hunting of escaped slaves as well as the ruthless and illegal capture of free blacks who, if not rescued, were sent South into slavery. The fear, pain and suffering resulting from the act intensified the anti-slavery cause.
African Americans of the post-Revolution era took an active role in developing the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, at first by organizing themselves to fight against racism and slavery. The two most prominent leaders, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, both had been born into slavery and had purchased their own freedom. In 1787 Richard Allen, a popular minister affiliated with St. George’s Methodist Church on Fourth Street, joined with Absalom Jones in the establishment of a self-help group, the Free African Society. In the following decade Jones and Allen spearheaded the movement for separate black churches. The need for the separate churches arose when black worshipers at St. George’s Methodist Church left the congregation after being mistreated during a Sunday service. Seeking dignity and self-determination, Allen and Jones appealed to the white community for financial support and approval for the church project. Resisted at first, the campaign eventually gained ground through the good works of the Free African Society during the terrible yellow fever epidemic in 1793. The society answered the mayor’s call for help by supplying nurses and gravediggers in a city crippled with fear of contagion and death. Public appreciation opened the way for the black community to build two separate churches in 1794. Richard Allen led Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Absalom Jones became deacon at St. Thomas African Episcopal Church on Fifth Street. These churches may have been the first in the nation to be solely black-owned and operated. The church congregates organized black Masonic groups, schools, literary and musical societies and other self-help opportunities. The leaders published newspapers and pamphlets to fight slavery and presented petitions to Congress and the state assembly. Both churches stood a few city blocks south of the State House, today’s Independence Hall. Bethel, a known Underground Railroad station, remains at its original site, Sixth and Lombard streets, in its fourth structure.
The expanding free black community, the city’s convenient location and anti-slavery advocates combined to make Philadelphia a likely destination for fugitives from slavery. So many fugitives arrived in 1810 that even the prominent abolitionist friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, voiced his concern. By 1820 Philadelphia no longer included a slave population, while the free black community had nearly climbed to 11,000, a steep rise from its 1775 count of 200, but representing only some 10 percent of the city’s total population of more than 100,000. The waves of black refugees that poured into the city coincided with a large white, predominantly poor Irish influx. Both groups competed for work and housing during a severe depression that struck Philadelphia after the War of 1812 and continued to suppress work and divide the working classes until 1826. With such economic hardships, racial tensions grew more violent and opportunities for African Americans in Philadelphia plummeted.
In the face of rising racism, nine state and local abolition societies met in Philadelphia for the first time in 1804 to form the American Convention for Promoting Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race. Philadelphia hosted this convention annually for many years. In 1831 Nat Turner in Virginia led a failed slave revolt which left numerous dead and the nation in fear. Two years later Great Britain abolished slavery in the British Empire, making Canada a safe destination for American fugitives. That year white and black abolitionists convened in Philadelphia to found the American Anti-Slavery Society. The daughter of James Forten, one of its founders, the same year helped organize the Female Anti-Slavery Society. That decade vigilance committees began to form in Philadelphia and other northern cities, to prevent the return of fugitive slaves to the South. While anti-slavery lecture circuits and abolitionist newspapers spread the cause across the country, race prejudice in Philadelphia intensified. Whites locked African Americans out of skilled jobs, leaving the city’s 14,000-odd free blacks to seek a living in the lowliest paid service. In 1837 the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill disenfranchising African Americans, a law that remained in force for 33 years. James Forten, Robert Purvis and other Philadelphia black leaders petitioned against the bill, but their effort to retain the vote was to no avail. The following year local anti-slavery advocates built Pennsylvania Hall on Sixth Street, opposite today’s Independence Mall. At its first meeting, attended by such nationally-known figures as Frederick Douglass and Lucretia Mott, a mob set the Hall on fire and it burned to the ground. During this and the next decade, Nativist mobs rallied to beat up or intimidate African Americans in public places.
The local racism reflected a mounting national crisis. The U.S. Congress galvanized the anti-slavery movement when it passed the Compromise of 1850 that reinforced the 1793 Fugitive Slave law. Only a small percentage of the nation’s enslaved population of about three million, or more than four times the count in 1790, ran away seeking their freedom, but those who did risked their lives and the well being of their families. In Philadelphia William Still, a free-born black, chaired the local vigilance committee that raised the funds to house and care for the fugitives and arranged their passage via the Underground Railroad to the North. Still also managed the committee’s finances, which paid for Harriet Tubman’s several daring raids to the south to lead people to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Fugitives captured near Philadelphia faced a hearing before the U.S. District Court on the second floor of Independence Hall. Most runaways who appeared before the court were sent back into slavery. The 1850 compromise facilitated bounty hunters’ efforts to deliver up slaves and made it nearly impossible for free blacks to defend themselves when illegally captured. The local black community realized that their own safety and freedom were at risk, but many among them continued to defy the law and serve as conductors on the Underground Railroad.
No record of the actual number of fugitive slaves remains to document the Underground Railroad traffic through Philadelphia, but it is certain that this city served as a key stopover -- perhaps the most active station -- on the coastal escape route from slavery. Between 1830 and 1860 an estimated 9,000 fugitives passed through Philadelphia, aided by the local vigilance committee. Refugees found relative anonymity within the city’s substantial free black population while they awaited their next leg on the journey north. In 1872 William Still published The Underground Railroad based on his careful accounts kept while he served the local vigilance committee. In it he brought to light the individuals who risked their own freedom to assist in daring rescues (perhaps most notable, the case of Henry "Box" Brown), as well as the individuals who escaped to freedom by way of Philadelphia on the Underground Railroad.
Structures and Sites within Independence National Historical Park identified with the Underground Railroad Theme:
Carpenters’ Hall, Independence Square, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Old City Hall, Franklin Court, Christ Church, St. Georges Methodist Church, Quaker Schoolhouse site, The Liberty Bell and Independence National Historical Park Portrait Collection
During most of the critical years when Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital, from the American Revolution to the close of the 18th century, the founding fathers dealt with the burning issues of freedom and slavery. Throughout the half-century before the Civil War, abolitionist groups from the north planned annual meetings in Philadelphia, helping to make it a communication hub for the anti-slavery movement. Philadelphia’s vigilance committee, primarily manned by free blacks, escorted thousands of fugitives to freedom. Philadelphia thus retains many sites or stories that assist in the understanding and appreciation of the Underground Railroad. The following buildings and sites stand within the legal boundaries of Independence National Historical Park.
The First Continental Congress met in Carpenters’ Hall, and there resolved to ban further imports of slaves and the continuation of the slave trade within the colonies, a step toward phasing out slavery in British North America.
Independence Square (originally called the State House Square) traditionally served as an outdoor meeting place for large public gatherings called together before the Revolution to debate liberty and freedom for the colonies. Local black Americans soon found after the Revolution that the square did not serve them equally. They were banned from attending the Fourth of July ceremonies on the square in 1812 and at least for the subsequent year.
Free African Americans in Philadelphia fought their own battle for freedom within the white dominated city. During the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, black volunteers organized by the Free African Society leaders, picked up coffins left on the Chestnut Street curb before the Mayor’s Office at Fifth Street, to bury the dead at the nearby Stranger’s Burial Ground, today’s Washington Square. Their service won the black community enough white cooperation and financial support to complete the first African American churches in the city. The churches fostered racial pride and leadership and often served as a sanctuary for fugitives riding the Underground Railroad.
As race relations worsened early in the 19th century, the free African American community continued to struggle to find a place of respect in Philadelphia. During the War of 1812 James Forten responded to the city’s appeal to the black community for help to prepare coastal fortifications by organizing volunteers in the State House Yard and marching with them to the Schuylkill River to build a redoubt. The city engineer praised their work, but little more remains on the record to suggest its positive impact on local white attitudes towards abolition and the Fugitive Slave Act.
Frederick Douglass, the acclaimed abolitionist and orator, himself a fugitive slave, came to Independence Square in 1844 to speak out against slavery. The Square had accumulated great meaning as the place where crowds had rallied for freedom before the Revolution and had first heard read the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence. Douglass exploited the significance of place to underscore the disparity in the meaning of freedom for whites and blacks under the weight of slavery. As he spoke, Douglass remained a fugitive from slavery yet to purchase his freedom. His personal risk appearing in such a public and historic space as Independence Square, combined with his eloquent, fiery message that insisted on freedom for the oppressed, raised awareness and hope in the black community, as well as throughout the larger society.
Frederick Douglass became an outspoken critic of the status quo. The Bill of Rights he called the "bill of wrongs" and the Constitution, "a compromise with manstealers and a cunningly devised complication of falsehoods." At the same time, his message sharpened the growing anxiety about race and slavery in the city’s white society. In 1862 Douglass concluded that perhaps no other place could compare with Philadelphia for its rampant "prejudice against color."
The Fugitive Slave law in the Compromise of 1850 prompted several gatherings on Independence Square. Blacks congregated outside the government buildings to hear the fate of escaped runaways on trial in the District Court. In 1851 the District Court trial of the Christiana defendants accused of murdering a slave owner excited a large mass meeting of whites on the square. They rallied "to prevent the recurrence of so terrible a scene upon the soil of Pennsylvania, to ferret out and punish the murderers." Such a demonstration laid bare the heightened feelings over the problems of slavery for the citizens of Philadelphia and the nation.
In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, president-elect Abraham Lincoln drew a crowd when he spoke at Independence Square on Washington’s Birthday observance, the occasion for raising a new U.S. flag with the 34th star for the state of Kansas. As one local paper sarcastically reported, "negroes were delighted and turned out in unusual numbers" to hear him speak. His solemn words, which drew cheers and applause, underscored the legacy of freedom and liberty associated with Independence Square:
I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this confederacy so long together… It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all men should have an equal chance.
Lincoln also made a prophetic and tragic statement that day at Independence Hall, that rather than preserve the Union by sacrificing the principles of the Declaration of Independence, he would prefer to be assassinated on the spot. Conscious of the rumored plot on his life, Lincoln announced to the nation that he was willing to die for the principles laid down by the Founders in the Declaration.
The Second Continental Congress sat in the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House during most of the American Revolution and from that building sent out the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The inspiring words of that lofty document, that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights, fueled the desire of some slaves to fight for their freedom. The movement to abolish slavery and the impulse to escape from slavery hit its peak for the century during the Revolution. Seated in the State House (Independence Hall), the Pennsylvania Assembly enacted the nation’s first Gradual Emancipation Act in 1780. While it freed no persons in the 18th century or for years into the 19th century, the act did provide the Pennsylvania Abolition Society with legal tools to defend the rights of African Americans. The spirit of the Declaration also left its mark on national abolitionist efforts. When the American Anti-Slavery Society organized in Philadelphia in 1833, they capitalized on the Declaration of Independence as a voice to end slavery.
The Pennsylvania State House also was the scene for the drafting of the U.S. Constitution that recognized slaves as 3/5th a person as a means to give southern states more representation in Congress. The Constitution also sanctioned the slave trade by postponing its end for 20 years, to the year 1808. With an ever-increasing slave population, the need for the Underground Railroad intensified.
The Constitution of the United States suggested the nation’s changing attitudes in little over a decade after the Declaration. The clauses dealing with slaves and the slave trade reflected a mounting political conservatism and resistance to abolition. These prejudices grew out of an expanding slave investment in the South and the implied threat from a growing number of poor refugees and free black in the North. Despite a steady decline in opportunity for enslaved and free blacks, the truths embodied in the Declaration of Independence continued to offer African Americans and beleaguered abolitionists some hope and inspiration in the increasingly violent decades prior to the Civil War. On the other hand, radical abolitionists, including Philadelphia’s William Still, James and Lucretia Mott, and Robert Purvis, officers in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, denounced the United States Constitution as a document that upheld slavery.
When the U.S. Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, which strengthened the fugitive slave law, the U.S. District Court responsible for the law’s enforcement sat on the second floor of Independence Hall. The Philadelphia Nativist Party during the decade also adopted Independence Hall as a museum and icon of liberty, posing a drear irony when the nation’s slave population stood at nearly three million. During the decade, Philadelphia received a surge of refugees from slavery. As captured fugitive slaves were brought to trial at the U.S. District Court, prominent local abolitionist attorneys rushed to the courtroom to argue for their release, while anti-slavery advocates covered the story for the abolitionist press.
In 1851 the U.S. District Court decided a case that won national attention. The judges considered the fate of the Christiana, Pennsylvania rioters accused of killing Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland slave owner as he chased runaways across the border. Some 30 men, both black and white, stood on trial at Independence Hall for murder and treason. Thaddeus Stevens and John M. Read, prominent civic leaders, provided their defense and orchestrated their acquittal. The federal attorney maintained that the defendants broke federal law and thus committed treason, but the judge and jury did not uphold his argument. The dramatic jury decision in the defendants’ favor set yet another precedent for the advocates of abolition, and gave reason to hope that the travelers on the Underground Railroad were gaining the nation’s sympathy.
In 1855 another noteworthy case came before Judge John K. Kane in the District Court when Passmore Williamson, a Quaker Abolition Society leader and Vigilance Committee member, stood trial for refusing to hand over three fugitive slaves. The fugitives, Jane Johnson with her two young children, had fled their master at Williamson’s instigation while traveling through Philadelphia. Passmore, notified by a messenger from Jane Johnson that she wanted her freedom, rushed with William Still, chair of the vigilance committee, and five other free blacks to inform the master and his slaves that Pennsylvania law did not allow slaves to be transported through the state. A tussle ensued, when Johnson and her children escaped to the Underground Railroad network in Philadelphia. At the trial Jane Johnson testified in her own behalf. Lucretia Mott, a stalwart Quaker abolitionist leader, and several other anti-slavery ladies accompanied her to the court room. Two of the free blacks who assisted her escape were convicted of riot, but only served one week, but Judge Kane sent Passmore Williamson to jail for contempt of court. William Still in his history of the Underground Railroad (1872; 1886), claimed that Williamson’s imprisonment brought "floods of sympathy from the ablest and best minds throughout the North."
Judge Kane’s action against Williamson "aroused much hostile feeling." At the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery meeting in Philadelphia that December, William Lloyd Garrison and Lucretia Mott publicly denounced him. Judge Kane had served many years in Philadelphia law, as city solicitor, as the local attorney who assisted President Jackson in his crusade against the Second Bank of the United States, and as attorney general of Pennsylvania, before accepting in 1846 a place on the United States District Court. Judge Kane died in office two years after his decision to imprison Williamson, having escaped a local effort to impeach him over the case.
The fugitive trials in Philadelphia heightened the African American awareness of the contradictions in the nation’s founding principles and government. The irony of witnessing the reenslavement of their fellow blacks within Independence Hall, the landmark of freedom and justice for white Americans, was not lost on the leaders of the local community. William H. Johnson voiced this bitter awareness at a Fourth of July celebration sponsored by the African-American Banneker Institute in 1859. "There are tories today, and their business is to hunt down the poor fugitive negro, and to handcuff and drag him hundreds of miles from his home to be tried as a slave, and to be remanded…under the sound of the old State House bell, and within sight of the hall where independence was declared." That day the crowd adopted a declaration that stated, "…we do hold it to be a self-evident truth…that all men, irrespective of colour or condition, by virtue of their constitution, have a natural indefeasible right to life, liberty, and the possession of property."
The Declaration of Independence came to serve as "the touchstone, the sacred scripture" (Berlin and Hoffman) for American and international abolitionist movements. The Underground Railroad fits well into Independence Hall’s World Heritage designation, because the people who risked their lives to fight slavery shared the spirit of those people who fought in the American Revolution and other revolutions around the world, to achieve their political and individual freedom.
The U. S. Congress, seated at Sixth and Chestnut streets, in the building known today as Congress Hall, passed the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act which gave sanction to the practice of tracking down fugitives from slavery and returning them to their owners. This act gave public awareness of the early stream of refugees crossing into the northern states and escaping to freedom. The abuses under this law led to the false arrest of free blacks who were sold into slavery in the South.
The U.S. Congress while in Philadelphia (1790-1800), received numerous petitions to ban the slave trade and abolish slavery. In 1797 Richard Allen and Absalom Jones led the first African American petition against slavery, which received only brief debate. In 1799 Absalom Jones and seventy others signed (mostly with their marks) another petition to revise the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to protect free and enslaved African Americans against illegal kidnapping and resale in the South. Their petition presented a precedent-setting argument that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of black people or slaves and as fellow men they wished to "partake of the Liberties and unalienable Rights" suggested by the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. This defense became a common point for 19th century abolitionists. Despite a mounting number of petitions against slavery or the slave trade, Congress considered the subject a divisive one that "created disquiet & jealousy." The petitions regularly were referred to committees and tabled.
Old City Hall
At Philadelphia’s City Hall on Independence Square two mayors publicly demonstrated their support of the anti-slavery mission. According to an account left by Lydia Maria Child, Robert Wharton, several times Mayor of Philadelphia between 1798 and 1824, never once gave up a fugitive slave to his claimant, although frequently called on to do so. A Friend or Quaker, Wharton, Child records, confided to Friend Hopper "that he could not conscientiously do it." Another Philadelphia mayor, R.T. Conard, advocated for a Louisiana white man who had been arrested while trying to escort his black slave wife to freedom through Philadelphia. The mayor’s letter, published in March 1855 by the anti-slavery press, simply told the chief of police that if he cooperated with the southern agent to return the man to Louisiana, he would consider it his duty to fire him. By Conard’s firm stand the husband was saved, but his wife, despite efforts to save her, was secreted away back to slavery.
As a printer Benjamin Franklin had owned and sold slaves, but through his work in the 1750s with the Bray Associates sponsored by Christ Church, he had grown to appreciate the innate talents of African Americans. At age 81 in 1787 he accepted the office of President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. As an old but renowned figure, his leadership gave real import to the regenerated Abolition Society. In poor health, Franklin often ran meetings in his home, where strategies were laid to assist free and enslaved blacks illegally kidnapped and provide other humanitarian assistance. In 1789 he signed a society publication, Address to the Public, which appealed for support and funds, and likely wrote the society’s petition against the slave trade submitted on February 12, 1790 to the First Federal Congress then seated in New York City. A month before his death, Franklin as his last public act wrote and published On the Slave Trade, a satirical letter that compared American slavery with the practice of the much despised Algerine pirates who were taking Christians on the seas captive and making them slaves. This clever polemic may not have won new activists for the cause, but Franklin’s international prestige and the philanthropic work done by the Abolition Society while he served as president likely encouraged more fugitives to pass through Philadelphia on their escape to freedom.
Christ Church sponsored the Bray Associates’ Philadelphia school for African Americans, both free and enslaved, during the mid-18th century. This school not only offered education to blacks in otherwise bleak circumstances, but it enlightened Franklin about their capabilities. Franklin monitored the school for the Bray Associates (who were based in England), reporting on the school’s effectiveness and the intelligence of the pupils. Christ Church’s support of the school, as well as its record of marrying African American couples, again free or enslaved, provided another positive record in Philadelphia to draw refugees from slavery.
St. George’s Methodist Church
The Methodist evangelism of the Revolutionary War era embraced the concept of freedom as a natural right for all mankind. For a brief time, Richard Allen became an itinerant preacher with the famous Methodist minister, Francis Asbury. The two journeyed together on religious tours of the South. Allen’s life example may have influenced some enslaved people to seek their freedom as runaways to the north.
Richard Allen and other blacks in St. George’s Methodist congregation together rose and left a Sunday service after they were publicly humiliated when ordered to move from their seating during prayer. This demeaning treatment reinforced Allen’s efforts to create a separate black church. Preferring to remain Methodist, Allen in 1794 organized the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Lombard Street, later a known sanctuary for runaways on the Underground Railroad.
Absalom Jones, another free black at St. George’s Methodist Church, accepted the call to assume leadership at St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, also founded in 1794. Both these congregations offered hope and example for the local community, as well as for those living in slavery elsewhere who heard about the progress of Philadelphia free blacks.
Quaker Schoolhouse Site, 4th and Chestnut
John Todd, Sr., reflected his Quaker background as an active member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. In 1787 and 1788 he served the electing committee and called Society meetings at his schoolhouse at Fourth and Chestnut streets. Todd and his son, John, Jr., (who purchased what today is known as the Todd House at Fourth and Walnut streets), both died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. The active early years of the Abolition Society influenced other states to form their own abolition societies, helping the cause of those fleeing injustice and persecution. From these modest beginnings, the network of contacts within the black and white communities across the country cemented and strengthened to form the Underground Railroad.
The Liberty Bell
Today the Liberty Bell reminds the international community of man’s quest for freedom. Originally this bell served at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) to call people to meetings on the square and to celebrate special occasions. In the 1830s the bell’s inscription from Leviticus in the Bible -- "Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land and to all the Inhabitants thereof Levit. XXV, 10" -- led abolitionists to adopt the name Liberty Bell by mid-century. Such a powerful symbol that all Americans could relate to as an icon of both Revolution and personal freedom helped to bring new sympathizers to the abolitionist cause, some of whom may have served the Underground Railroad.
In Philadelphia, black leaders saw in the Liberty Bell a beacon of hope. In 1862 William Douglass effectively wrote:
A moral earthquake had awakened the slumber of ages. The spirit-stirring notes that pealed out from Independence Hall, proclaiming "LIBERTY THROUGHOUT THE LAND TO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF," and causing the most humble to lift up his head with higher hopes and nobler aspirations, were yet echoing through every nook and corner of the land. The revolutionary struggle, in which was involved the great principles of human rights, was still fresh in the minds of all from the least unto the greatest…
As with Douglass, the Biblical theme on the Liberty Bell inspired a now famous African American active on the Underground Railroad, Sojourner Truth, who believed God had chosen her to lead her people to freedom. Sojourner Truth became a "powerful, eloquent and persuasive" orator, ranked only behind Frederick Douglass as an effective anti-slavery speaker. When seated on public platforms, she wore a satin banner across her chest emblazoned with the words, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto the inhabitants thereof." Even after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Philadelphia’s Banneker Institute returned to the bell’s quote for inspiration as their slogan. Now the Liberty Bell serves as an international icon for personal and political freedom, but it took many years of demonstrations and committed illegal acts on the Underground Railroad before the Bell came to symbolize freedom for the African American in the United States.
Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, 301 Pine Street
The Thaddeus Kosciuszko memorial, at the house where this Polish officer and patriot in the American Revolution convalesced during a 1797 visit to Philadelphia, provides an opportunity to discuss Kosciuszko’s expanded view of human freedom. His defense of American liberties and his struggle to free the serfs in his native Poland inspired Kosciuszko’s will which directed his friend and executor, Thomas Jefferson, to apply designated funds to free enslaved Americans and educate them in the principles of self-government. Jefferson failed to execute this aspect of Kosciuszko’s will.
Independence National Historical Park Portrait Collection
The park’s portrait collection of early national leaders in the Continental Army, the United States government and the arts provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the complexity and inconsistencies inherent in the problem of slavery in the American culture. The American Revolution inspired rhetoric from some leading citizens that called for the end of slavery, but a few of these same individuals later revisited the issue with a more conservative, racist attitude.
Some of the key abolitionists in the park’s collection include Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse, Charles Willson Peale, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Sedgwick, Francis Hopkinson, Gouverneur Morris, Thomas Paine, Noah Webster, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and James Madison. Some of the northern members of this group (Rush and Peale) owned slaves even while publicly condemning slavery. All the southern anti-slavery men owned slaves, but disliked the institution and hoped to find an acceptable or affordable way to grant their freedom. President Washington freed all his slaves by his will, but his heirs failed to execute his wishes. Jefferson went bankrupt and sold many of his slaves, after writing and debating for many years on how to resolve the issue of slavery in America.
Thomas Jefferson’s portrait also presents the conundrum raised by the ideals of human freedom set out in the Declaration of Independence coexisting with the continuation of human bondage. The King George III portrait allows for the telling of the Revolution’s principles of human rights and freedom coupled with Jefferson’s condemnation of the king for perpetuating slavery in the colonies in his first draft of the Declaration. Joseph Reed, governor of Pennsylvania during the Revolution (1778-1781), affords the story of the state’s precedent-setting Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. Richard Allen’s life can be reinforced at the portrait of Benjamin Chew, Allen’s master as a boy. Chief Justice Chew sold young Allen to a farmer in Delaware, where Allen converted to Methodism. Allen remembered the strength and hope his faith gave him. Allen’s strong religious convictions helped him to raise the money to buy his own freedom, when he moved to Philadelphia, became a preacher and community leader, and eventually the founder and preacher at his own church, now called Mother Bethel, known to have been an Underground Railroad station.
The portrait of the Polish patriot and freedom fighter, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, features a dual story. His passionate belief in the rights of man extended to those in slavery. Kosciuszko entrusted his friend Thomas Jefferson with the responsibility to carry out the terms of his will, which left money to buy slaves and set them up as farmers on the land. Kosciuszko’s will also specified that his estate should pay to educate them in the responsibilities of citizenship in a free government, including the duty to defend the Constitution and the country against foreign and internal enemies. Thomas Jefferson refused to execute the terms of the will.
Other anti-slavery stories can be compiled from the lives of the early national leaders (more than 150) on display in portrait at the Second Bank gallery.
Accessible Archives Search and Information Server for African-American
Newspapers: 19th Century. The North Star, Provincial Freeman, The Christian Recorder, Freedom’s Journal, The Coloured American, The National Era,
Frederick Douglass Paper.
Alexander, John K. Render Them Submissive Responses to Poverty in Philadelphia, 1760-1800. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Berlin, Ira and Ronald Hoffman, editors. Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, for the United States Capitol Historical Society, 1983.
Blassingame, John W. Frederick Douglass The Clarion Voice. Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, 1976.
Blockson, Charles L. Pennsylvania’s Black History. Edited by Louise D. Stone. Philadelphia: Portfolio Associates, 1975.
________________. The Underground Railroad. New York: Prentice Hall Press,
Boorstin, Daniel J. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948, reprint with a new preface, 1993.
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Dictionary of American Biography. Edited by Dumas Malone. New York: Charles
Scribner and sons, 1934.
Di Giacomantonio, William C. "‘For the Gratification of a Volunteering Society:’
Antislavery and Pressure Group Politics in the First Federal Congress." Journal of the Early Republic 15 (Summer 1995), 169-197.
Dumond, Dwight Lowell. A Bibliography of AntiSlavery in America. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1961.
Foster, Joseph S. In Pursuit of Equal Liberty George Bryan and the Revolution in Pennsylvania. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line The Legend of the Underground Railroad. The University Press of Kentucky, 1961. 1996 edition.
Giannini, Robert Lewis, III, "Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial Furnishing
Plan," Independence National Historical Park, October 1988.
Gregg, Howard D., Ph.D., History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (The
Black Church in Action). Nashville: AMEC Sunday School Union, 1980.
Independence National Historical Park. Historical Research Note Card File.
"Index to the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Representatives of the First Congress," on microfilm at INDE.
McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.
Mires, Charlene, "Independence Hall: Memories Lost and Found," Prepared for Presentation to the Pennsylvania Historical Association, November 8, 1997.
Morris, Richard B. Encyclopedia of American History. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953.
Nash, Gary B. "The Black Revolution in Philadelphia," A Paper presented to the Center for Early American Studies, 1985 (in writer’s files).
Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community 1720-1840. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Nash, Gary B. and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees Emancipation in Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Negro History 1553-1903 An Exhibition of Books, Prints, and Manuscripts from the
Shelves of the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1969.
Rasmussen, William M. S. and Robert S. Tilton. George Washington The Man Behind the Myths. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania, from 1682 to 1801, Volume 10, 1779 to 1781.
Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer of Pennsylvania, 1904.
Still, William. Still’s Underground Railroad Records Revised Edition. With A Life of the Author. Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in the Efforts for Freedom. Philadelphia: William Still, Publisher, 1886.
Turner, Edmund Raymond, Ph.D. The Negro in Pennsylvania Slavery—Servitude— Freedom 1639-1861. Washington: The American Historical Association, 1911.
Turner, Edward Raymond, "The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 36 (19) 309-318.
Underground Railroad. Official National Park Service Handbook. Department of Interior, National park Service, 1998.
Weigley, Russell F., editor. Philadelphia A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.
Wilkinson, Norman B. "Papers of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 68 (1944), 286-290.
Wolf, Edwin 2nd. Philadelphia Portrait of An American City. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1975.