I’m continually reading Pennsylvania history books. The more I read, the more my past assumptions shatter. What I had learned in school decades ago has more often been wrong, than right.
Here’s four things I learned so far about slavery in Pennsylvania:
Abolition Laws Didn’t End Slavery
Slavery was abolished in 1780, yet the number of enslaved people living here increased. The largest population of enslaved persons was in Philadelphia.
To try to end slavery again, the state legislature outlawed it in 1847. But it wasn’t until 1860, the year prior to the Civil War, that there were zero enslaved people in Pennsylvania. The state laws were not enforced on the wealthy enslavers at all.
Quakers Profited from Slavery
I’d been told Quakers were abolitionists working to stop the slave trade. They were “the good guys.”
Recently historians going through Quaker archives found that they were both enslavers and abolitionists. Although Pennsylvania was founded by a Quaker from England, some of the first residents were Quakers from Barbados who brought slaves with them. Those early residents made the port of Philadelphia a major hub of the slave trade. Having a Quaker ancestor doesn’t necessarily mean “good guy.”
Slavery was a Religious Issue
Christians argued about slavery for decades prior to the Civil War.
There was no compromise between those for and against it. Most Christian denominations split into differently named factions. Some split a couple of times prior to the Civil War. Many denominations split not just north-south, but also east coast-central states. Finding out my ancestors’ denominational faction during this time gives me a clue about their view of enslavement.
Many Possible Legal Statuses
African American people had one of three possible statuses in Pennsylvania prior to 1870:
- An enslaved person owned for life by another person.
- An indentured person bonded for a set time to another person.
- A free citizen with all rights. Except, in some counties rights were infringed and taken away completely, often with violence. It varied by location and time period in Pennsylvania.
African American history in Pennsylvania is more complicated than I ever knew. The contradictions and paradoxes provide the opportunity to show me a different view of life here than I was ever taught in school. I’ll continue to read and learn, and incorporate it into my family history.
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