Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Kidnapping Blacks in Philadelphia: Isaac Hopper's Tales of Oppression

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Kidnapping Blacks in Philadelphia: Isaac Hopper's Tales of Oppression

Article excerpt

On November 6, 1802, the Poulson's American Daily Advertiser, a local Philidelphia newspaper, published an editorial, "Melancholy Effects of Slavery," that accused James Ewing, Trenton's mayor, of having ordered several blacks, including one Romaine, along with his wife and his child, all of whom belonged to a French planter, to leave New Jersey and return to St. Domingo, where they had lived as slaves. After boarding a Trenton stagecoach, the blacks and their owners rode to Philadelphia where they stopped to eat. Somehow, Romaine's wife and child slipped away, but before Romaine could escape, the planter's escorts ordered him into the stagecoach. Romaine "walked a few steps, and with a pruning knife, which seemed," wrote the editor, "prepared for the purpose, cut his throat in so shocking [a] manner that he expired in a few minutes after on the pavement."(1)

In his anonymous editorial, Isaac Hopper, a thirty-one year-old Quaker, alias Friend Hopper, who was an abolitionist, suggested that Mayor Ewing should bear responsibility, at least partly, for Romaine's death, and that the "legality of the permission granted by the mayor of Trenton, is much questioned and will be investigated."(2) On December 10, 1840, Isaac Hopper published a story about Romaine in the National Anti-Slavery Standard noting that the "circumstances here related occurred many years ago, but they made such a deep impression on my mind, that they are now as fresh before me as though it was but yesterday."(3)

Lydia Maria Child, the National Anti-Slavery Standard's editor, encouraged Hopper to write about his experiences assisting blacks pursued by their former masters, hoping that blacks such as Romaine would be immortalized. Child had arrived in New York from Massachusetts in the spring of 1840 and needed a place to stay and "took up my abode with the family of Isaac Hopper."(4) Because Hopper needed a job, Child hired him in June of 1840 as a treasurer and a book agent for the Standard, a paper that "represents itself before the world as the official organ of the American Anti-Slavery Society." On June 11, 1840, Hopper penned his first narrative, "An Interesting Case of Escape." In September of 1840, one reader in a letter to the editor maintained that Friend Hopper had an "immense fund of the most graphical interesting anecdotes, stored away in his excellent memory, and his tact in the relation of them never fails to exite the liveliest attention." Eventually, Hopper received space to print his stories serially. On October 22, 1840, Hopper penned the first of seventy-nine narratives in a bi-weekly column called the Tales of Oppression. The Standard said, "they will be read we have no doubt with deep interest."(5)

Drawn from "authentic sources, relating to the sufferings of the slaves and their efforts to escape from their fetters, and having a great abundance of such facts in my possession, I have concluded to offer them for publication in your columns," reported Hopper in his preface to the Tales of Oppression. The majority of the Tales featured black men: 55 (70%) referred to them; whereas 17 (22%) of the stories referred to black women, four (5%) to white men, and three (4%) to black children. Sixteen (29%) of the black men were free or passing for free; 10 (59%) of the women fell into the same category. Thirty-eight (40%) of the men were fugitives, as were 11 (67%) of the women. Over 90% of the blacks gave no ages or Hopper overlooked them; seven of the 11 blacks that did mention their ages were between the age of 25 and 35. About 75% of the blacks featured in the Tales came from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Seventeen percent came from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi. Over 90% of the blacks either had set foot at least once in Philadelphia or had been permanent residents in that city. Twenty-five percent of the blacks were skilled. In short, the typical black highlighted in the Tales of Oppression probably was likely to be in the prime of his life, unskilled, and a fugitive passing for free, who was either living in the North or had fled there seeking solace. …

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