Slavery is a complicated part of Pennsylvania history.
Pennsylvania was at the forefront of the fight to end the sale, forced labor, and exploitation of human beings in the United States.
The Mason Dixon Line was the literal finishing line in the race for freedom for so many enslaved people escaping their enslavers and slave-catchers from the South. Pennsylvania was a hotbed of abolitionist activity, the birthplace of home to many names we all recognize: Thaddeus Stevens, Martin Delaney, Benjamin Lay, Lucretia Mott, Richard Allen, Dinah Nevil, Robert and Harriet Purvis, Frances Harper, and the list goes on. Pennsylvania’s Quakers were among the first to call for an end to slavery and the Underground Railroad snaked its way through many a Pennsylvania town. Pennsylvania proudly points to the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act as the first state law to put the end of slavery in motion.
But slavery was embedded in the very foundation of the Pennsylvania colony, and its presence lingered in the state long after it was “abolished.”
The trans-Atlantic slave trade was strong in Pennsylvania throughout the 18th century and even some Quakers (William Penn included) were enslavers. Enslaved people lived in Pennsylvania as early as 1685. Fugitive Slave Laws led to the kidnapping of Free Black Pennsylvanians and the capture of escapees from the South here, often aided by white Pennsylvanians. When Pennsylvania Hall was built by Philadelphia abolitionists in 1838, an anti-abolitionist mob burned it to the ground in mere days.
Even the Gradual Abolition Act had its defects- it was excruciatingly slow and enslaved people lived in Pennsylvania through the late 1840s thanks to loopholes and legal technicalities of the law.
Studying slavery in Pennsylvania is important because it is so complicated. When we understand the ways in which slavery flourished and was hindered by Pennsylvanians; when we understand the many contributions enslaved people made to the state’s economy, politics, culture, and society; when we understand the experiences of abolitionists, former and enslaved people, and Pennsylvanians connected to slavery we can better see the state’s whole history.
There has been a lot of great scholarship on slavery in Pennsylvania in recent years. Dickinson College’s “House Divided” Project has studied the lives impact their school and its alumni had on the institution of slavery with voluminous results. In recent years scholars like Lucien Holness, Cory James Young, Beverly Tomek, and Cooper Wingert have been exploring the history of slavery in Pennsylvania in new and interesting ways (check out any of their books or articles to learn more). And the “Adverts 250 Project” has been dutifully exploring the advertising history of American slavery since 2016 and has featured dozens of advertisements from newspapers that reveal the extent of slavery in 18th century Pennsylvania. Seriously, there are new developments in the field all the time!
And this scholarship isn’t just something happening in archives or history books alone- Pennsylvania’s history still impacts Black Pennsylvanians today. This issue was addressed just last year by Pennsylvania Representative Chris Rabb in his call for state reparations: “people are acknowledging the injustices experienced by black people in the most mundane but ubiquitous ways — the administration of justice, the disparity in income, infant mortality, maternal mortality, childhood obesity, gun violence, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, education discrimination. If we acknowledge these things, how do we not acknowledge the root source? This is bigger than slavery, but slavery is what started it all off.”
The quotes below run the length and breadth of Pennsylvania slavery- the voices of those who experienced slavery first-hand are here as well as more distant observers, politicians, and historians from our present day. I heartily recommend checking out any of the original sources to learn the context behind each of these.
Recommended listening: “Go Down, Moses” by Harry T. Burleligh (1919). [This is the only surviving recording of Burleigh, a brilliant Black composer and singer from Erie. He was taught to sing by his grandfather, Hamilton Waters, who had previously been enslaved in Maryland and purchased his freedom in the 1830s. Burleigh took spirituals traditionally sung by enslaved people and arranged them in a more classical form, influencing composers like Dvorak and bringing this musical style into mainstream American music.]
“Now let me tell you about Pennsylvania. I have been in every New England state, in New York, Canada, and Ohio, but of all these places, this is the meanest of all as far as the treatment of colored people is concerned. The other day I, in attempting to ride in one of the city cars, after I had entered, the conductor came to me and wanted me to go out on the platform. Now was not that brave and noble? As a matter of course, I did not. Someone interfered and asked or requested that I might be permitted to sit in a corner. I did not move, but kept the same seat. When I was about to leave, he refused my money and I threw it on the car floor and got out, after I had ridden as far as I wished. Such impudence!”
“I have met, of course, with kindness among individuals and families, all is not dark in Pennsylvania, but the shadow of slavery, oh how drearily it hangs!”
“In Pennsylvania, farmers and merchants shuttled between bound Europeans and enslaved Africans, exhibiting little concern for their origins, color, or status of their workers—save for availability and price.”
“It is a humiliating fact that Pennsylvania has furnished more victims to the Fugitive Slave Law, than all the other States of the Union put together.”
“When we contemplate our Abhorence of that Condition to which the Arms and Tyranny of Great Britain were exerted to reduce us, when we look back on the Variety of Dangers to which we have been exposed, and how miraculously our Wants in many Instances have been supplied and our Deliverances wrought, when even Hope and human fortitude have become unequal to the Conflict; we are unavoidably led to a serious and grateful Sense of the manifold Blessings which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being from whom every good and perfect Gift cometh. Impressed with these Ideas we conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our Power, to extend a Portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us; and a Release from that State of Thraldom, to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every Prospect of being delivered.”
-Pennsylvania General Assembly, 1780
An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery
“When I found I had crossed dat line, I looked at my hands to see if I was de same pusson. There was such a glory ober ebery ting; de sun came like gold through the trees, and ober the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaben…
So it was with me, I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land’ and my home, after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free. I would make a home in the North and bring them there, God helping me. Oh, how I prayed then, I said to de Lord, ‘I’m gwine to hole stiffy on to you, an’ I know you’ll see me through.”
-Harriet Tubman (after crossing the state border into Pennsylvania), 1869
“Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman” (by Sarah Bradford), pages 19-20
“Slow, piecemeal movement from bondage to freedom characterized Pennsylvania after independence.”
“Young professionals from Pennsylvania, who had grown up in a society with slaves, were integral to the creation of the United States’ largest and most profitable slave society.”
Cory James Young, 2019
“From North to Natchez during the Age of Gradual Abolition,” pages 119 and 139
“He had brought with him, from his prim and semi-saintly home in Pennsylvania, the bitterest hatred of the Southern slave-holder, studiously disguised under a sedate exterior, but, like the treacherous moccasin, ever ready to strike.”
Will B. More (referring to Andrew Ellicott), 1791
“Will B. More Letters, Scenes in the Sunny South,” page 160