Last updated: January 16, 2023
Having been formerly enslaved, Reverend Peter Randolph used the pulpit and publications to share his experiences and preach against slavery.
Born in Prince George County, Virginia, Randolph grew up enslaved to Carter H. Edloe with his mother and four siblings. Unlike Edloe's other enslaved men and women, Randolph could read and write. His literacy proved instrumental in securing his and their freedom.
Edloe's will directed his estate to first pay his debts, and then "to raise a sufficient sum to pay for the transportation of my Slaves to any Free State or Colony which they may prefer."1 However, upon Edloe's death the executor of his will kept Randolph and the 79 others enslaved. When Randolph learned of the will and read it for himself, he helped obtain a lawyer to plead their case. After over three years of being unjustly kept in slavery, a magistrate successfully secured Randolph and the others their free papers and passage to Boston.2
On September 5, 1847, Randolph and sixty-six newly emancipated men, women, and children from Edloe's plantation boarded a ship to Boston.3 They arrived on September 15, and Randolph wrote about this day:
It was soon noised abroad through the city, that a cargo of emancipated slaves had landed at Long Wharf. A large number of citizens came to the wharf to see the strangers, and to congratulate them on their new birth to freedom. Prominent among these were, William Lloyd Garrison, John A. Andrew, Wendell Phillips, and Samuel May... Need I say, we were made welcome to our new home, when we met such distinguished visitors.4
These men and members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society assisted Randolph and the other freed people with settling in the city and greater Boston.
Randolph joined the Beacon Hill neighborhood, specifically its religious and activist communities. He initially worshipped at the Belknap Street Church with a small group led by Leonard Grimes. This group later established the Twelfth Baptist Church with Grimes as its preacher and Randolph as one of the Church's original members.5 Randolph became a licensed preacher at this church.
His involvement with the community expanded into supporting anti-slavery causes. In 1854, The Liberator records Randolph's donation to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. During this same year, the Account Book of Francis Jackson, Treasurer The Vigilance Committee of Boston documents Randolph’s assistance to freedom seekers. The Vigilance Committee reimbursed Randolph for boarding freedom seekers "Jn'o R Jones," Alexander Perkins, and Richard Howard.6
Listening to the leaders of the Anti-Slavery society, Randolph saw a missing element to their argument: "I saw at once what was the difficulty: the thing needed was more definite knowledge in regard to the masters and their slaves. This I felt I could supply from my experience in the South as a slave."7 In 1855, he published The Sketch of a Slave life, or, an illustration of the peculiar institution to prove " 'that slaves, when liberated, can take care of themselves, and need no master or overseer to drive them to their toil.' "8
As a Baptist preacher in the 1850s, he spoke at various churches in the Greater Boston area, as well as led churches in Boston; New Haven, Connecticut; and Newburgh, New York.9 With the encouragement of Reverend Leonard Grimes, Randolph moved south to help the newly emancipated people in Virginia after the Civil War. Settling in Richmond, Randolph saw both the joy of the newly emancipated people, as well as their struggles. He began preaching at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and soon became its permanent pastor.10
After serving in Virginia for over four years, Peter Randolph returned to Boston. Noticing the large number of Black southerners who had moved to Boston and did not have an organized place to worship, Randolph founded the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1871 in Boston’s South End.11 In the last years of his life, Peter Randolph shared his life story in his autobiography From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit. The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph: the Southern Question Illustrated and Sketches of Slave Life.
Many parishioners, clergymen, and former abolitionists attended his funeral, attesting to the profound influence Randolph had on his community. According to his obituary, Reverend Peter Randolph "had the record of founding and preaching over more Baptist churches than any other Baptist clergyman in New England."12
- Peter Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit. The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph: the Southern Question Illustrated and Sketches of Slave Life. (Boston: James H. Earle, Publisher, 178 Washington Street, 1893), accessed January, 2021, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 19.
- Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, 26.
- Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, 28.
- Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, 28-29.
- Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, 42.
- “Collections,” The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), February 3, 1854.; Account Book of Francis Jackson, Treasurer The Vigilance Committee of Boston, Dr. Irving H. Bartlett collection, 1830-1880, W. B. Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives, 28, https://archive.org/details/drirvinghbartlet19bart/page/28/mode/2up.
- Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, 32.
- "'Sketches of Slave Life,'" The Liberator, May 18, 1855.
- Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, 50, 52, 56-58, 62-63.
- Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, 87.
- Randolph, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, 109-112; Robert C. Hayden, Faith, Culture and Leadership: A History of the Black Church in Boston (Boston: Boston Branch NAACP and Robert C. Hayden, 1983), 35.
- "'Father' Randolph," Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), August 9, 1897.
- Geographical coordinate associated with Peter Randolph is at approximately 20 Botolph Street, Boston, Massachusetts, where Randolph lived prior to the Civil War according to Courage and Conscience: Black and White Abolitionists in Boston, edited by Donald M. Jacobs (Indiana University Press, 1993).