Pennsylvania Abolition Society — A Place for the “Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage”
Clarkson Hall, at 7th and Cherry Streets, was the site of a school for Black children. It was founded by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society as a place where it held its meetings. The Society was founded by the Quakers to advocate for complete emancipation, to aid freed slaves, and to protect free Blacks from being kidnapped. In order to accomplish its goals, it provided assistance to Blacks in the courts and petitioned the government for emancipation.
By 1770, slavery among the Quakers had become extinct, and most wanted to push for statewide emancipation. In 1773, a slave woman was brought to Pennsylvania by her master and, while he was out for work, she declared herself to be free. Citizens came to her aid and helped her sue for freedom. At the end of the two year trial, the woman was declared a slave. While the citizens were unsuccessful, it inspired them to continue with similar work. On April 14, 1775, a group of Quakers met at the Rising Sun Tavern in Philadelphia and signed the constitution for the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
The Society ceased operating during the Revolution until 1784 when the War ended, and the Society met again. In the meantime, Pennsylvania had passed an act in 1780 calling for the gradual abolition of slavery. The law said all children born into slavery after the passage of the law would be freed at the age of 28. This was not enough for the Society, but it was a good start.
The Pennsylvania Abolition Society made many attempts to get the state legislature to pass a law ending slavery within the state. It argued in 1790 that the state constitution said all men were born equally free, which included Blacks, but it was unsuccessful. The Society also aided abolition societies in other states. The Society especially pushed for total emancipation in the District of Columbia. In an effort to end slavery in other ways, its members advocated for the 1794 law ending American slave trade under foreign flags. In 1847, a law was passed with the help of the Society barring masters from taking slaves through Pennsylvania. All of these measures made it harder to practice slavery.
Additionally, it petitioned for jury trials for runaway slaves and provided legal aid for Blacks. The group also recognized the importance of educating Blacks. Many schools were supported by the Abolition Society. In 1795, for example, it supported a school run by a free Black woman. In 1813 the Society started its own school in Clarkson Hall, the building in which they held their meetings. One floor of the building was a boys’ school, while another floor was the girls’ school. The school was so successful that additional schools were later opened at other locations. Schools run by prominent Black figures, such as preacher Absalom Jones, also received financial aid from the Society. None of the schools were integrated.
When Richard Allen, a former slave, was kidnapped, the Society rushed to provide evidence that he was in fact a freeman, and should not be returned to the South. Many kidnappers came to Philadelphia to prey on the large number of free Blacks living there, so the Abolition Society had their work cut out for them. The Society helped to convict kidnappers in court. It played a large role in writing and enforcing laws passed in 1820 and 1847 that penalized kidnappers. The high fines and the Society’s persistence were enough to greatly decrease the number of slaves taken back into slavery. Many members also were a part of the Underground Railroad, assisting slaves escape.
The Pennsylvania Abolition Society began to lose popularity as people favored colonization. This movement supported African-Americans moving back to Africa and creating a colony there. The Society, however, refused to support removing Blacks from their homes. Many Blacks turned to sermons and other forms of public meetings to protest. Some people took more violent approaches to activism, which went against the Society’s Quaker foundation. Despite the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s decline in membership, it was extremely successful and important in fighting for African-American rights. Today the Society works to improve the lives of Blacks by fighting discrimination and providing education.
- Needles, Edward. An historical memoir of the Pennsylvania Society: for promoting the abolition of slavery; the relief of free negroes unlawfully held in bondage and for improving the condition of the african race. Philadelphia: Merrihew and Thompson, Printers, No. 7 Carter's Alley. 1848.
- Turner, Edward Raymond. The First Abolition Society in the United States. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 36, No. 1 (1912), pp. 92-109.