Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: April 10, 2008
Byline: Stephan Salisbury
Virtually from the moment the first enslaved African was brought to American shores, black resistance to slavery began. Sporadic rebellions broke out north and south in the 18th century. Individual slaves sought to flee their captivity. Some managed to buy their own freedom — and then help those remaining in bondage to escape.
Africans taken to America resisted slavery from the very first, a struggle traced in a Library Company exhibition.
Virtually from the moment the first enslaved African was brought to American shores, black resistance to slavery began.
Sporadic rebellions broke out north and south in the 18th century. Individual slaves sought to flee their captivity. Some managed to buy their own freedom — and then help those remaining in bondage to escape.
By the end of the 18th century, Africans in America were organizing their own churches, their own self-help societies, their own institutions. And they began to articulate their own vision of freedom and equality — in the midst of a largely hostile white population.
This progression from uprooted powerlessness to grounded political action traces the emergence of a culture of free Africans in the New World. And an exhibition now at the Library Company, "Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic," illustrates the sweep of the journey with dozens of newspapers, books, pamphlets, engravings, cartoons, broadsides, portraits and paintings, on display through Oct. 10.
The Library Company also is presenting "Atlantic Emancipations," a three-day academic conference, beginning today, that marks two 1808 bicentennials: the end of the Atlantic slave trade in the United States and the culminating year of Pennsylvania's gradual abolition law, the first emancipation law passed anywhere in the world.
"What we're looking at is the emergence of early free black society," said Phillip Lapsansky, the Library Company's chief of reference and curator of the exhibit.
"As they face rising racism, what do they do? How do they organize themselves? What is the nature of free black thought? What is the agitation of the free black community against slavery? How does that affect the larger, more moderate community?"
Here, in a quiet exhibition room at the Library Company, 1314 Locust St., are newspaper notices seeking the return of runaway slaves. "A Negroe wench, named Phoebe, about 30 years of age, of a small stature, has three or four large Negroe scars up and down her forehead, but is apt to wear a handkerchief round her head to hide them," reads one notice in 1763. Phoebe's owner offered a 30-shilling reward for her return.
Here, too, is a 1744 account of a "conspiracy formed by some white people, in conjunction with Negro and other slaves, for burning the City of New-York in America and murdering the inhabitants" three years earlier.
The 1741 events recounted in the book led to about 100 arrests of whites and blacks. Some whites were hanged, 18 blacks were hanged and 13 were burned at the stake. All had been named by an informer and all proclaimed their innocence.
By 1790 nearly 2,000 free blacks were living in Philadelphia. Led by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, former slaves themselves, they were organizing the nation's first enduring black social and religious institutions: The Free African Society (1787), Mother Bethel AME Church and the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (both founded in 1794).
These critical events have been highlighted here in recent years by archaeology connected with Independence National Historical Park: first, the 2003 excavation of the James Dexter homesite on Fifth Street, north of Arch Street, where Dexter, Jones and others discussed the founding of St. Thomas; then, the 2007 excavation of the nation's first executive mansion (at Sixth and Market Streets) used by both the slave-owning George Washington and the antislavery John Adams.
These excavations are noted in the Library Company exhibit, which goes on to explore the emergence of organized antislavery sentiment among free blacks, the first free black newspaper (the Freedman's Journal, which began publishing in New York in 1827), the perils of kidnapping, the birth of the Underground Railroad, and the continuous black effort to push more moderate whites into embracing abolition and full equality as the goals of the antislavery movement.
"We wish to plead our own cause," wrote John Russwurm, founder of the Freedman's Journal. "Too long have others spoken for us."
If You Go
"Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic" is on view at the Library Company, 1314 Locust St., through Oct. 10. The exhibit is free and open from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. For information, call 215-546-3181 or visit www.librarycompany.org