Black history in Pennsylvania is as rich and complex as it is interesting.
Often times I see the historical experiences of Black Pennsylvanians reduced to slavery, abolition, and the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, or profiles of notable leaders of the Black community like Richard Allen, Octavius Catto, or Marian Anderson. There’s a whole lot more to this story.
In the 19th century Pennsylvania’s Black historians like George Washington Williams and Martin Delany studied the lives of Black Pennsylvanians and published histories that are still worthwhile reads today. In the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois, Edward Raymond Turner, and more recently scholars like Joe Trotter Jr. have expanded on this foundation with histories of Black Pennsylvania that include rigorous analysis and careful use of archival records. Major historical organizations like the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Historical Society of Pennsylvania are studying Black history- not just elites and famous events but ordinary people and their communities as well. And today, I’m hopeful that the work of Black Lives Matter and other activists will help spur more interest and research into Pennsylvania’s Black history. This is important, and it matters.
These quotes just stretch the surface of all of this, but I think they do a good job demonstrating the important place Black citizens have always had in Pennsylvania’s history.
Recommended listening: “Misty” by Pittsburgh native Erroll Garner and “Juneteenth Jamboree” by Philadelphia’s Gladys Bently.
“Few states present better opportunities for the continuous study of a group of Negroes than Pennsylvania. The Negroes were brought here early, were held as slaves along with many white serfs. They became the subjects of a protracted abolition controversy, and were finally emancipated by gradual progress. Although, for the most part, in a low and degraded condition, and thrown upon their own resources in competition with white labor, they were nevertheless so inspired by their new freedom and so guided by able leaders that for something like forty years they made commendable progress”
-W.E.B. Du Bois, 1899
“The Philadelphia Negro; a Social Study,” page 10
“We honor Pennsylvania and her noble institutions too much to part with our birthright, as her free citizens, without a struggle. To all her citizens the right of suffrage is valuable in proportion as she is free; but surely there are none who can so ill afford to spare it as ourselves?
“We will not allow ourselves for one moment to suppose, that the majority of the people of Pennsylvania are not too respectful of the rights and too liberal towards the feelings of others, as well as too much enlightened to their own interests, to deprive of the right of suffrage a single individual who may safely be trusted with it.”
“Pennsylvania contributes an important share in the stock of Independence, as will be seen by the following historical reminiscence: ‘On the capture of Washington by the British forces, it was judged expedient to fortify without delay, the principal towns and cities exposed to similar attacks. The Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia waited upon three of the principal Colored citizens, namely, James Forten, Bishop Allen, and Absalom Jones, soliciting the aid of the people of Color in erecting suitable defenses for the city. Accordingly two thousand five hundred Colored men assembled in the State House yard, and from thence marched to Gray’s Ferry, where they labored for two days, almost without intermission. Their labors were so faithful and efficient, that a vote of thanks was tendered them by the Committee. A battalion of Colored troops were at the same time organized in the city, under an officer of the United States army; and they were on the point of marching to the frontier when peace was proclaimed.’”
“We know of no such expression in the constitution or laws of the United States, nor in the constitution or laws of the state of Pennsylvania, which can legally be construed to prohibit free negroes and mulattoes, who are otherwise qualified, from exercising the rights of an elector. The preamble to the act for the gradual abolition of slavery, passed on the 1st of March 1780, breathes a spirit of piety and patriotism, and fully indicates an intention in the legislature to make the man of color a freeman.”
-David Scott, Judge of the Eleventh Judicial District, 1837
Hobbs et al. v. Fogg
“Pennsylvania has wrought an immense change in their [Black peoples’] condition since she became her own mistress, but she still does not feel discharged from all obligations and further duties to this unfortunate race of men—her citizens are lending their energies to the cause of colonization, which has for its object the restoration of the black man to the luxuriant soil of his father-land. There does not seem, therefore, to be any harshness in the denial of suffrage to the blacks, for all the measures of this state in reference to them, have been conceived in the most enlarged philanthropy, and tempered with love and pity.”
–Wyoming Republican and Farmer’s Herald, 1838
Quoted in “’Principles, Not Men’—Dr. Andrew Bedford’s ‘Inflexible Democracy,’” Pennsylvania in the Civil War blog Aug. 17 2019
“I have lived in a slave state all my life until seven years ago. I am now forty five. I lived three years in Pennsylvania, in which State I suffered more from prejudice than in Virginia, and there is a great deal here in London, but not so much as in Pennsylvania…. I did not leave Pennsylvania so much on account of the prejudice, as on that of the fugitive slave bill. I did not like to live in a country which was governed by a partial law. I made considerable sacrifice by breaking up.”
-Nelson Moss, 1856
“I know of no man who has a better right to call himself a Pennsylvanian than I. I was born and reared in Washington county of this State, as was my father before me, as was his father before him; as was my mother before me, as was her mother before her. As a boy I played, studied and fought with other boys of other races, and always in my sport and in school I was outnumbered twenty to one, yet in all my dealings, in all my youth, I never received from those other boys anything but justice and fair play. In the belief that Pennsylvania men are just Pennsylvania boys grown older, I come to you to-day asking for that same justice and fair play as men, that I received for that same justice and fair play as boys.”
-Representative John C. Asbury, 1921
Legislative Journal of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, page 1064