Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

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

8 ABOLITION OF THE SLAVE TRADE

Peter Williams Jr.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates agreed that no law could be passed prohibiting the African slave trade until the first day of 1808. On December 2, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson, responding to the pressure of antislavery forces in the United States, among whom free blacks were especially active, urged Congress to outlaw the external slave trade, and on March 2, 1807, a bill to that end was passed, with the prohibition to become effective on January 1, 1808 (England abolished its traffic in slaves on March 25, 1807). Weak enforcement of the law, however, prevented total abolition of the slave trade in America for many years.

African Americans throughout the North celebrated the closing of the African slave trade. In New York City, the Reverend Peter Williams, Jr. ( 1780?-1840), son of one of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, delivered an address in the New York African Church hailing the abolition of the slave trade.

Williams had been educated at the New York African Free School and later tutored by Episcopalian clergy. He was licensed as a lay reader in 1812 and led the drive to establish a separate black Episcopalian church. On July 3, 1819, St. Philip's African Church was consecrated, and seven years later, Williams was ordained as its priest. His congregation included such future leaders as Alexander Crummell and James McCune Smith. Williams was a leader of the New York black community and an ardent campaigner for the extension of full citizenship rights to African Americans. He was a cofounder of the first black-edited U.S. newspaper, Freedom's Journal, in 1827 and of various mutual aid and educational programs.

Williams's denunciation of the slave trade sometimes relies upon strategies problematic for modern readers. He portrays African people and society before the slave trade as simple, uncivilized, and content. But Wiliams's re-creation of the destruction of Africa is powerful and moving, and he draws upon the living memories of his audience to "bring to view these scenes of bitter grief." Williams celebrates the abolition of the slave trade as testimony to the power of the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

The text of the address is taken from Peter Williams--An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade; Delivered in the African Church, in the City of New York, January 1, 1808 ( New York, 1808).

Fathers, Brethren, and Fellow Citizens: At this auspicious moment I felicitate you on the abolition of the Slave Trade. This inhuman branch of

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