Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

ANTI-SLAVERY EFFORT BEGAN IN THIS STATE QUAKER ABOLITION GROUP FORMED IN 1775 Series: BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

ANTI-SLAVERY EFFORT BEGAN IN THIS STATE QUAKER ABOLITION GROUP FORMED IN 1775 Series: BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Article excerpt

Nearly a century before the Emancipation Proclamation, the leading anti-slavery movement in the United States was centered in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was founded by Quakers in Philadelphia in 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence. Over the next 60 years, until the emergence of fiery anti-slavery advocates such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, the Pennsylvania group's philosophy of gradual emancipation of slaves was the leading edge of the anti-slavery movement in America.

And unlike most other abolition groups, which went out of business after the Civil War, the Pennsylvania society still exists, handing out about $30,000 a year in grants for historical and equal rights purposes.

It is no accident that the society was founded by Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, said Richard Newman, Rochester Institute of Technology historian.

When the Quakers began as a Christian overhaul movement in England in the 1600s, he said, they quickly faced persecution, in part because they did not respect the hierarchy of the Anglican Church or social classes of the time.

Even their use of "thee" and "thou" in addressing all people was a sore point for gentry who expected to be called "m'lord" and "m'lady," Mr. Newman said.

Transplanted to Pennsylvania under William Penn's leadership, the Quakers were early advocates of freeing slaves, saying, "We as Quakers know what it means to be treated harshly," he said.

Jean Soderlund, a historian at Lehigh University, said the Quakers believed that every human being was inhabited by "God's inner light," and that made them more likely to push for equality.

Nevertheless, when the Pennsylvania Abolition Society began its work, it did not push for immediate emancipation of slaves, instead favoring a gradual approach.

There were a couple of reasons for that. One was a belief held by many American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, that slaves were not prepared to live as free people without a period of education and training.

Another was the natural spirit of compromise the Quakers had adopted within their own ranks. When they first came to Pennsylvania in the 1680s, many wealthier Quakers owned slaves. Over the next 90 years, Quakers first agreed to end the purchase of slaves, then involvement in the slave trade and, finally, in the 1770s, they declared no slave owners could remain in the Society of Friends.

So it made sense that the first major accomplishment of the abolition society was the passage of a Pennsylvania law that said that any slaves born in the state after 1780 would be emancipated at the age of 28.

Despite its gradualist approach, the law made a big impact.

Even though the law applied only to slaves born after March 1, 1780, many Pennsylvania slave owners decided to free slaves born before that date at age 28 as well, Ms. Soderlund said. Also, slaves from nearby states such as Virginia and Maryland fled to Pennsylvania, wrongly believing they would be free the minute they crossed the border.

Some of those cases ended up in the courts, where abolition society lawyers such as David Paul Brown were ready and willing to defend escaped slaves if they believed there was a case.

"It's remarkable how much these legal counselors did," said Chris Densmore, a present-day board member of the abolition society. …

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