Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

1 I SPEAK TO THOSE WHO ARE IN SLAVERY

Cyrus Bustill

The Bustill family records have been remarkably well preserved, and a sketch of the family history was published by Anna Bustill Smith in the Journal of Negro History in 1925 (638-49). Cyrus Bustill was born in slavery in Burlington, New Jersey, on February 2, 1732. Bustill learned bread making from his third slaveholder, Quaker Thomas Prior (Pryor) and was greatly influenced by Quaker teachings. He "early became convinced of the rectitude of Friends' (Quakers') principles and conformed to their mode of garb and speech," according to Smith (639). Freed from slavery in 1769, Bustill soon established his own bakery. During the American Revolution, Bustill supplied bread to the Continental Army and was later recognized by Washington for his contributions to the war effort.

Despite the conciliatory tone of the address here reprinted, Cyrus Bustill was a committed abolitionist and refused to marry in his early adult life because "he would not perpetuate a race of slaves." He eventually married Elizabeth Morey and moved to Philadelphia, where he again established a successful bakery and was also engaged in the building construction business. In 1796 he became the first African American schoolteacher in the city. He was an active member of the Free African Society, founded on April 12, 1787, a mutual aid group that Dorothy Porter has identified as the first organized African American society. Bustill died in 1806.

On September 18, 1787, Bustill addressed a group of slaves in Philadelphia. The manuscript of the speech is in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and was published in the William and Mary Quarterly for January 1972. It is reprinted here with permission of the William and Mary Quarterly.

The speech is representative of the viewpoint of many in the free black community of Philadelphia of the time. While making clear his opposition to slavery, Bustill insisted that slaves must take no action to liberate themselves. In due time, he argued, God, in his mercy, would liberate all the slaves. African American preachers, particularly those ministering to slaves, had to walk a rhetorical tightrope by speaking defiantly enough to engage their listeners yet not so as to alarm slaveholders or the authorities.

The notes are reprinted as they appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, where they were furnished by Melvin H. Buxbaum, who discovered the speech. References to scriptural passages indicated by superscript letters were added by another hand and are appended here as they

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