Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Beverly C. Tomek

Underground Railroad

With a deep abolitionist history and large and vibrant free black population, Philadelphia and the surrounding region played a prominent role in the famed Underground Railroad. The loosely connected organization of white and black people helped hide and guide enslaved people as they sought freedom in the North and Canada.

According to one of the earliest accounts, written by Robert Smedley in 1883, slaveholders began to use the term “Underground Railroad” in the late 1780s to describe clandestine efforts in the Columbia, Pennsylvania, area to help fugitives escape slavery. Columbia grew out of the small settlement of Wright’s Ferry, which was founded by Quakers and other white people who opposed slavery. Soon after its founding, the town gained a reputation for protecting fugitives and allowing free black settlement.

[caption id="attachment_31644" align="alignright" width="300"] Built in 1708, the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad in conjunction with Abolition Hall on the opposite side of Germantown Pike. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Before long a system of escape routes led fugitives north from the Chesapeake toward Havre de Grace, Maryland, and across the Susquehanna River to Lancaster and Chester Counties. Several routes developed in south central and southeastern Pennsylvania and in southwestern New Jersey, regions with strong Quaker abolitionist networks and vibrant free black communities that helped fugitives make their way farther north. Those traveling through New Jersey followed a route that later became the path of the New Jersey Turnpike. The southeastern Pennsylvania route shared the common intended destination of Phoenixville, where fugitives hoped to reach the home of Elijah Pennypacker (1804-88), who helped them on to Philadelphia, Norristown, Quakertown, Reading, and other stations. This network of assistance gained the name “Underground Railroad” around 1804, and historian Larry Gara has estimated that as many as one thousand enslaved people a year joined the slow but steady traffic by the mid to late 1840s.

Tense Borders

[caption id="attachment_31606" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a two-story stone home with a chimney; the first story is white washed. The Christiana "riot" took place at the home of William Parker, a free black man who helped organize a mutual protection society for the area's black population. When Edward Gorsuch and his posse arrived at Parker's home, they were met by at least fifty men who intended to protect the escaped slaves. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

This activity led to tense interstate relations between border South states like Maryland and border North states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Well before the Civil War, conflicts that historian Stanley Harrold has labeled a “border war” over slavery took place in communities of southeastern Pennsylvania and southwestern New Jersey. Abolitionists put up armed resistance to slaveholders’ efforts to recapture slaves, in many cases rescuing the accused from courthouses and jailhouses. Two famous incidents, one at Swedesboro, New Jersey, in 1836 and one at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1847, led to considerable violence as fugitives and their allies fought hard to thwart the efforts of slave catchers. The rescuers in New Jersey succeeded in saving a black family from a professional slave catcher from Philadelphia, but the group in Carlisle had mixed results and the situation ended in convictions for eleven rescuers. Perhaps the most famous of these rescue “riots” occurred in 1851 in Christiana, Pennsylvania, when a Maryland slaveholder was killed by black men as they defended themselves against recapture. Despite the rising violence along the North/South border, escapes continued throughout the 1850s.

Historian Nilgun Okur has estimated that by the beginning of the Civil War nearly nine thousand fugitives made their way to Philadelphia, some passing through on the way to other destinations and others choosing to stay. In Philadelphia new arrivals found further assistance from the Vigilance Committee, led by prominent black abolitionists like Robert Purvis (1810-98) in its early years and later by William Still (1821-1902). The group aided fugitives who reached Philadelphia by providing food, shelter, and clothing, sometimes in the form of disguises as they moved from one station to another.

[caption id="attachment_31604" align="alignright" width="240"]This black and white portrait-style photograph shows William Still. William Still (1821-1902), born in New Jersey, was a leading figure in the Vigilance Committee. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

A New Jersey native, Still began working for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1847, gradually advancing from custodian to clerk, then chair of the Vigilance Committee. His wife, Letitia (George) Still (1821-1906), played an important role by offering the Still home and by using her seamstress skills to sew the clothing and to raise money to help fund the operation. The Stills hosted a number of famous fugitives, including Jane Johnson (c.1814-72) and her sons, whom Still and fellow abolitionist Passmore Williamson (1822-95) dramatically rescued in 1855. In addition, Still received a number of now-famous fugitives in the Anti-Slavery Society office at 105 N. Fifth Street, including Henry “Box” Brown (c. 1816-97), who had himself shipped there from the South, and Still’s own brother Peter (1801-68).

Much of what historians know about these encounters comes from Still’s meticulous records and his resultant book, The Underground Railroad, published in 1872. According to his journal, preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, he helped 485 fugitives in the city between 1852 and 1857. Still’s work and records clearly illustrate the importance of the free black community to the operation and success of the Underground Railroad.

Philadelphia’s Aid Network

Still was building on a long tradition of free black volunteers aiding fugitives. When he moved to Philadelphia he joined the largest and wealthiest northern free black community, one with a host of churches, organizations, and mutual aid societies, including Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. These institutions helped foster a strong leadership class among black Americans who had helped make Philadelphia an epicenter of American abolition even before the American Revolution. Though Philadelphia and the surrounding region were plagued by the same racism and animosity toward blacks that permeated American society, the region was also home to a supportive community of Quakers and other whites sympathizers. They founded organizations such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to fight against bondage and give aid to free black people. This interracial cooperation was essential to the success of the Underground Railroad.

[caption id="attachment_31605" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white lithograph of four black men being ambushed by a crowd of white men. In the 1850s, Pennsylvanians were sometimes brought to court for helping and concealing fugitives from slavery, and accused fugitives faced hearings that could lead to a return to bondage. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The conductors were violating Fugitive Slave Laws passed by the federal government in 1793 and 1850. The 1850 law in particular made it difficult to help fugitives because it required federal authorities to hunt runaway slaves and bystanders to participate in their capture when called upon. As a result, those who aided fugitives faced severe criminal penalties of six months in jail and fines of $1,000 as well as the possibility of civil suits from slave owners.

The story of the Underground Railroad provides an important example of interracial unity in the fight for social justice that began in the colonial era and continues today. White and black abolitionists worked together to help enslaved Americans gain their freedom, pushing the nation to reach for the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. Everyday citizens who served as guides and conductors along the railroad had come to realize that the U.S.’s racial caste system harmed all Americans, and they employed nonviolent direct action to fight against the injustice. Their example animated later efforts such as the modern civil rights movement and remains relevant in the twenty-first century.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and is associate professor of history and associate provost at the University of Houston-Victoria.


MOVE, a controversial Philadelphia-based organization often associated with the Black Power movement, combined philosophies of black nationalism and anarcho-primitivism to advocate a return to a hunter-gatherer society and avoidance of modern medicine and technology. The group’s very loud and public quest for racial justice, as well as its strong views on animal rights, led to a number of confrontations between MOVE members and their West Philadelphia neighbors as well as with Philadelphia police. The most famous of these confrontations, in 1985, earned Philadelphia a reputation as “the city that bombed itself.”

[caption id="attachment_26066" align="alignright" width="185"]a black and white photograph of John Africa carrying a cardboard box with a pineapple in it. John Africa founded MOVE in 1972 after serving in the Korean War and becoming disillusioned with American society and race relations. He was one of eleven killed in the 1985 bombing of their headquarters. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

MOVE emerged in the early 1970s as the American Christian Movement for Life or the Christian Life Movement. Vincent Leaphart (1931-85), who later took the name John Africa, founded the group and wrote the foundational document initially known as The Book of Guidelines, The Book, or The Guidelines and eventually called The Teaching of John Africa. Because Leaphart was functionally illiterate, he turned to Donald Glassey (b. c.1946), a social worker from the University of Pennsylvania, to help him write and edit the document, which included roughly three hundred pages. This manifesto espoused the importance of self-reliance and a nature-based lifestyle that included scavenging, composting, eating raw foods, and exercise. Ultimately it called for a return to nature even for those who lived in the city. Since the founding of the group in 1972, MOVE members have lived communally primarily in West Philadelphia, with additional properties in Rochester, New York.

The first major confrontation between MOVE and the police led to a shootout in Powelton Village on August 8, 1978, that left police officer James J. Ramp (1926-78) dead and nine MOVE members in jail for life. The incident began when police arrived to execute a court order requiring the group to vacate a compound they had created at 307-309 N. Thirty-Third Street after repeated complains from neighbors concerning the number of animals being kept on the property, reports of filthy conditions, frequent use of a bullhorn to transmit lectures based on John Africa’s teachings, weapons code violations, the presence of children in reportedly filthy conditions, and MOVE’s refusal to pay gas and water bills. Shooting erupted, and Ramp was hit in the back of the neck. MOVE was blamed for his death, but accounts of MOVE members stated that Ramp was facing the home at the time of the shooting, leading to questions of whether the bullet could have actually come from a MOVE weapon. Five firefighters, seven police officers, three MOVE members, and three bystanders were also injured during the standoff.

[caption id="attachment_26065" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of Delbert Africa speaking into a microphone in front of his home, with a pile of foodstuffs around his feet Delbert Africa became MOVE’s primary spokesman after John Africa began secluding himself from the public. He is shown here in 1978 at the group’s Powelton Village home with a pile of supplies donated by sympathetic community members during the blockade of the home by Philadelphia police. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The arrested members, since known as the MOVE Nine, were sentenced and convicted of third-degree murder in Ramp’s death. They became eligible for parole in 2008, but all were denied then and in subsequent hearings. MOVE Nine members included Merle Africa (1951-98), who died in prison in 1998 at the age of 47; Phil Africa (1956-2015), who died in prison in 2015 at the age of 59; and Chuck (b. 1959), Michael, Debbie (b. 1956), Janet (b. 1951), Janine, Delbert, and Eddie Africa (b. c.1947).

Bullhorn Broadcasts

After the confrontation at Powelton, MOVE relocated to 6221 Osage Avenue, in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia, a predominantly African American and middle- class neighborhood. Determined to force their neighbors to hear their case and join their efforts to free the Move Nine, MOVE members broadcast their message night and day through a bullhorn from their fortified headquarters. They built what was essentially a fortress within the Osage home, adding bunkers inside the house and on the roof. They also kept many animals—from domesticated dogs and cats to wild rats—in the home, leading neighbors to complain of filth and health risks to both the MOVE children and to the neighborhood in general. Observers noted young children who were not enrolled in school. Some neighbors also complained of verbal and physical assaults committed by MOVE members and garbage being piled up around the home. As a result, District Attorney Edward Rendell (b. 1944) issued arrest warrants and Mayor Wilson Goode (b. 1938) sent the police to execute the warrants on Monday, May 13, 1985.

[caption id="attachment_26061" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of Wilson Goode smiling in a crowd Wilson Goode was the first African American mayor of Philadelphia. He was vilified by many after the 1985 bombing of MOVE’s Cobbs Creek headquarters, which killed eleven people including John Africa and left more than two hundred and fifty residents homeless. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

As police and city officials had anticipated, MOVE members refused to respond to the officers who arrived or to send the children out of the home. The mayor and Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor (b. 1928) saw this as justification to use military-grade weapons and extreme measures, despite the presence of the children. Announcing over a loud speaker, “Attention MOVE: This is America!” Sambor began the attack by sending in a team to flush the house with fire hoses. When MOVE remained unresponsive, officials blew holes in the walls to fumigate with tear gas. That did not work either, and a shootout ensued. After shooting thousands of rounds into the MOVE compound, police decided to use explosives to knock the bunker off the roof, using a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter to drop high-powered C4 explosives onto the house. The explosives caused a fire, accelerated by the presence of gasoline in the home. Fearing that firefighters could get caught in the crossfire between police and MOVE members, officials let the fire burn and it spread throughout the neighborhood as area television crews filmed the destruction. Danger from crossfire also kept MOVE members pinned inside the home. Some eyewitness reports indicated that when MOVE members finally tried to exit the burning house, police fired on them, but controversy remained over this claim. The conflicting reports, along with the live television coverage of much of the day’s events, led many people in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the United States to question the decision-making process of the mayor and other officials.

The bombing of the MOVE compound killed six adults and five children and destroyed more than sixty homes, leaving more than 250 Philadelphians homeless. Only 13-year-old Birdie Africa (1971-2013), who later took back his given name of Michael Ward, and Ramona Africa (b. c.1955) survived the confrontation. Those killed included children Katricia Dotson (Tree), Netta, Delitia, Phil, and Tomasa Africa and adults Rhonda, Teresa, Frank, CP, Conrad, and John Africa (1931-85).

Mayor Goode quickly appointed a committee to investigate the bombing. The commission’s report, issued on March 6, 1986, concluded that police used “grossly negligent” tactics and committed an “unconscionable” act by “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house.” The commission expressed doubt that police would have acted similarly in a white neighborhood. Although the commission called for grand jury investigations, nobody was prosecuted and in 1987 Goode won reelection. In 2013, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey (b. 1948) requested a Justice Department review of the city’s use of force, and that review’s conclusions echoed the MOVE Commission Report, finding systemic deficiencies and problems with improperly trained police using military equipment against citizens.

[caption id="attachment_26062" align="alignright" width="300"]a poster urging the release of the nine MOVE members held in prison, with a photograph of each Nine members of MOVE were convicted on third degree murder charges in the 1978 shooting death of Philadelphia police officer James J. Ramp. MOVE continued to fight for the surviving members' release in 2017. (On a MOVE)[/caption]

Ramona Africa and the Aftermath

Ramona Africa served as her own attorney in a trial that ultimately led to her conviction on riot charges. She served seven years in prison. In 1996 she and relatives of two MOVE members who were killed in the bombing sued the city and won a total of $1.5 million in a civil suit judgment ordered by a federal jury. She continued to serve as the spokesperson for MOVE and to advocate for the release of the MOVE Nine and Mumia Abu-Jamal (b. 1954), a black radio journalist who had covered the MOVE Nine trial before his own controversial conviction in the shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. Michael Ward was placed in his father’s custody and spent years in therapy to deal with his experiences with MOVE and the bombing. He drowned in a hot tub on a cruise in 2013.

The neighborhood surrounding the Osage home never fully recovered from the bombing. A home at 6221, built to replace the MOVE compound, stood vacant in 2016. With four bedrooms, one bathroom, and 2,203 square feet, it was valued at approximately $54,119. Sixty-one homes were rebuilt by developers hired by the city, but they were almost immediately plagued by problems such as leaky roofs, faulty plumbing, saggy floors, inadequate electrical wiring, and peeling siding. The contractors who built the homes were sent to jail for mishandling funds, but some residents felt they had no choice but to accept the hastily and poorly rebuilt substitutes for the homes they lost. In the early 2000s the city finally agreed to buy the homes for $150,000 each, leading to a mass exodus of residents, many of whom had been part of the neighborhood for generations. Those who remained continued to emphasize that theirs is a safe and close-knit community within walking distance of Cobbs Creek Park.

In November 2016, thirty-one years after the conflagration, the City of Philadelphia issued a request for proposals to develop three dozen properties that had been vacant since the buyout of 2000.

The MOVE bombing gave Philadelphia police the distinction of having carried out the only aerial bombing against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. The incident and the later state of the neighborhood, which the city failed to adequately rebuild, continued to serve as a testament to police brutality and institutional racism in Philadelphia. In 2016, Ramona Africa compared the MOVE bombing to the police killings of black men throughout the U.S. in later years. Tying MOVE to the Black Lives Matter movement, she asserted that cases of police brutality are “happening today because it wasn’t stopped in ’85.”

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Fugitives From Slavery

Immediately after passing the nation’s first gradual abolition law in 1780, Pennsylvania became a haven for fugitive slaves from neighboring states, putting the state at odds with slaveholders throughout the South and causing tension with Maryland in particular. Though New Jersey also attracted escaping slaves, and whites in both states had mixed reactions to the newcomers, Pennsylvania’s location on the Mason-Dixon Line created a unique situation that influenced local and national attitudes about the issue of slavery.

[caption id="attachment_20772" align="alignright" width="300"]A color map highlighting the borders between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware The Mason Dixon Line—the long horizontal red line on this map—is legendary for dividing free and slave territory. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Tension permeated this region where slavery and freedom sat side by side. By the time of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution seven years after Pennsylvania passed its abolition law, all northern states except New York, New Jersey, and Delaware had made provisions to end slavery, at least gradually. This left the nation divided along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border—the Mason-Dixon line—with Pennsylvania as the first free state north of the line and Maryland the first slave state to the south.

Questions arose over whether slaveholders could take their human property into non-slave states or retrieve runaways. The U.S. Constitution sought to answer questions like this by regulating the relationship between states, and in 1793, while Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital, Congress took the matter further with a Fugitive Slave Law that enforced the return of anyone bound to labor in one state and fleeing to another. As sectional animosity reached its zenith, legislators offered a second Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 that required state and local authorities to assist in the recapture of runaways. Pennsylvania abolitionists resisted both laws through legal means and efforts to gain public sympathy for the fugitives.

Slave Catchers and Kidnapping

[caption id="attachment_20775" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white lithograph of four black men being ambushed by a crowd of white men The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made assisting fleeing slaves a punishable offense. In the 1850s, Pennsylvanians were sometimes brought to court for helping and concealing fugitive slaves. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

While fugitive laws aimed to return runaways to slavery, they also placed northern free blacks in jeopardy of being kidnapped by eager slave-catchers. In response, in 1811 the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) began pushing for the first state personal liberty law, eventually passed by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1820. The law imposed fines and jail sentences for kidnappers of suspected fugitives and required judges to file reports any time they deemed someone a fugitive and returned him or her to slavery. Combined with abolitionists’ resistance to slavery and the slave trade and their reputation for assisting free blacks, the personal liberty law encouraged many fugitives from slave states, especially nearby Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, to head straight for Pennsylvania.

Slaveholders throughout the U.S. reacted swiftly in characterizing Pennsylvania as an enemy to their interests. Maryland slaveholders and legislators were especially unhappy with the personal liberty law, viewing it as an impediment to their right to lawfully pursue fugitives. With debates also raging over whether slavery would be extended into new territories, beginning with Missouri, more and more people began to question how free states and slave states could coexist as enslaved people sought refuge in free states and slave catchers kidnapped free blacks from free states.

[caption id="attachment_20774" align="alignright" width="300"]A political cartoon of two white men and one black man cowering while being confronted by an angry white man holding a chair and a bag of money Isaac T. Hopper (far left) was a Quaker who served on the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s Acting Committee. Though he worked through the law to protect blacks, he was also known for bending the law by helping slaves escape. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

As the tensions between freedom and slavery heated up during the antebellum years, abolitionists working to protect free blacks sometimes extended their efforts to safeguard fugitives as well. Throughout the border North, notably in southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, antislavery leaders stressed that slave catchers were disregarding the rights of states to legislate for themselves on the matter of slavery. This led to outcries that the “slave power” was seeking to force slavery on the entire nation. As a result, some mid-Atlantic whites began to call upon their states to adopt personal liberty laws. One successful example was the 1820 Pennsylvania law that focused primarily on providing jury trials for accused fugitives.

Defending Accused Fugitives in Court

Abolitionist lawyers such as William Rawle (1759-1836) and Evan Lewis (1782-1834) defended accused fugitives in court from the early days of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. One of the more famous attorneys, Quaker David Paul Brown (1795-1872), represented and won freedom for a number of black Americans during his forty-year career. Freedom suits grew even more complicated after the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and its controversial Fugitive Slave Law. At this point, as historian Charlene Mires has shown, the old Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) became the scene of a number of heated cases in which whites accused blacks of being fugitives and blacks and their abolitionist allies fought to establish their freedom. In one case, a man named Henry Garnet ran out of the courtroom celebrating his newly-granted freedom, only to be arrested by police who assumed he was attempting an escape. This case in particular illustrates the precarious position of the men and women who pleaded their cases in the building that, by that time, was celebrated by many as the birthplace of American liberty.

[caption id="attachment_20773" align="alignright" width="212"]A black and white photo of Robert Purvis shown in profile Robert Purvis was a leader of the African American community and a key figure in Philadelphia’s Vigilant Committee. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

While abolitionists took their cases to the courts, free blacks and their white allies undertook covert action to assist runaways more directly through such means as the Underground Railroad and slave rescues that were often undertaken by Vigilance Committees. In addition to such noted slave rescues as that of Jane Johnson (c. 1814-22-1872), Pennsylvania also saw organized resistance in the form of the Christiana Riot. In this 1851 case, a Maryland slave owner acquired the necessary warrants to pursue suspected fugitives in Lancaster County but was killed during the pursuit. Five whites and thirty-three blacks were charged with interfering with the Fugitive Slave Law, an infraction that carried a charge of treason. To some, these men were simply carrying out the promise of American freedom, but to others they were murderers who disregarded the nation’s laws. In the end, the prosecution failed to gain treason convictions, but public opinion remained split.

Support from abolitionists and free blacks encouraged people in bondage to flee, but their presence angered many whites and led them to resent the free black community. Historian Edward Raymond Turner, one of the first to focus on race relations in Pennsylvania, contended that, even while Pennsylvanians fought to help fugitives thwart the designs of their masters, most whites in the state held prejudiced views of blacks, especially fugitive slaves, as inferior. Indeed, it was during this same period that Pennsylvanians supported the strongest state auxiliary to the American Colonization Society, a group that worked hard to send blacks to Africa.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a significant number of whites saw the fugitives, rather than the slave catchers, as the source of disruption and lawlessness. Historian James Gigantino has argued that New Jersey politicians consistently communicated “solidarity with southerners, a desire for law and order on the border, and for gradual approaches to abolition.” Historian David Smith found similar tensions in southeastern Pennsylvania, but he concluded that antislavery leaders like Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) found a way to chip away at slavery by focusing on individual kidnap victims and fugitives. In taking individual cases to court, they were able to appeal to some local whites on a personal level by humanizing accused fugitives while keeping with the PAS tradition of using legal action rather than the sweeping emotional appeals offered by those demanding an immediate end to slavery.

Rhetoric over the status of the new territories grew heated throughout the antebellum years, with opponents of slavery insisting that the new states exclude slavery in favor of a “free soil” system that allowed fair competition by preventing slaveholders from using their power, influence, and captive labor to dominate the new states. This political antislavery led to the creation of the Liberty Party in the 1840s, but, due partly to Stevens’s involvement, border abolitionists had developed a political antislavery that predated the emergence of that party and laid the groundwork for political abolition. As historian Richard Newman has shown, Pennsylvania abolitionists, free blacks, and the fugitives who sought their aid also created a “free soil” mindset even before the term was applied to the new territories in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Historians agree that the fugitives forced the issue of slavery to remain at the forefront of border state politics, and their self-help efforts reinforced the work of abolitionists and free blacks.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Vigilance Committees

As Pennsylvania and other northern states became havens for enslaved people who sought to escape bondage, free blacks and sympathetic whites organized Vigilance Associations, which operated Vigilance Committees (sometimes called Vigilant Committees) to protect fugitives and potential kidnap victims. After black abolitionist David Ruggles (1810-49) formed the first such organization in New York City in 1835, Robert Purvis (1810-98) convinced his Philadelphia associates to do the same in 1837. Citizens in rural counties soon followed suit, and Vigilance Committees began to appear throughout the region. Women’s auxiliaries soon followed.

[caption id="attachment_18785" align="alignright" width="236"]Photograph of Robert Purvis Robert Purvis, pictured here in a daguerreotype made in the 1840s, brought the idea of Vigilance Committees to Philadelphia. (Boston Public Library)[/caption]

In the 1830s, a series of events highlighted the need for Philadelphians to organize a sustained initiative to help the runaways who were flocking to the region in increasing numbers. Angered from watching slave catchers chase down escaped slaves and free blacks, a Committee of Twelve, which included Purvis, met in 1834 to consider helping fugitives escape. Two years later, Purvis became involved in a dramatic rescue of four enslaved brothers named Dorsey. Finally, under the direction of Purvis and his father-in-law, the influential businessman James Forten (1766-1842), a group of men met in August 1837 to organize the “Vigilant Association of Philadelphia,” with the primary goal of aiding fugitives and kidnap victims.

Members of the Vigilant Association paid twenty-five cents to join and contributed at least seventy-five cents yearly. They elected a Vigilant Committee of fifteen members and appointed officers, including a president, a secretary, a treasurer, a number of subcommittees, and a salaried agent to collect funds for their initiatives. Members chose James McCrummell (?-c1867), a prominent black dentist, as president; Jacob C. White (1806-72) as secretary; and James Needham (?-1870) as treasurer. A year later, in July 1838, women formed the Female Vigilant Association to assist in fundraising. This group also had a committee of fifteen that included Elizabeth White (1807-?) as president. The women held West Indian Emancipation Day celebrations on August 1 and fairs in December to raise money.

Vigilant Committees communicated with each other through informal means and messengers, creating loose and irregular regional networks. Sometimes their efforts crossed state boundaries, but the details of their work is difficult to trace because participants concealed the evidence of their efforts to help enslaved people break the law by “stealing themselves” from their masters.

Vigilant committees operated more openly than the secretive Underground Railroad. The association’s and committee’s work was kept secret, but their existence was well known. In Philadelphia, members published their names and addresses in the Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper and in flyers so that fugitives and others in need could easily find them. Purvis’s home at Ninth and Lombard Streets contained a hidden room in the basement for emergencies, and his country home, Byberry (near Bristol in Bucks County), served as a temporary home for many. The committee also circulated flyers to enlist donations of clothing and other paraphernalia to help disguise fugitives and send them on their way to Canada and other points along the Underground Railroad.

[caption id="attachment_18208" align="alignright" width="300"]The emblem of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society (emblem above) was one organization that lent its support to Vigilant Association of Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Abolitionists affiliated with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) and the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society (PASS) assisted the Vigilant Committee in many ways. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), a New Englander who moved to Philadelphia in 1837 to edit the Pennsylvania Freeman (formerly known as the National Enquirer and General Register), helped to found the committee. David Paul Brown (1795-1872), a noted Philadelphia criminal attorney who worked with the PAS and helped to found the Philadelphia Antislavery Society, represented fugitives and the abolitionists who assisted them free of charge.

The Philadelphia Vigilant Association reorganized annually in 1839, 1840, and 1841, changing leadership and staff as it struggled for financial stability while offering increased services to fugitives. The group offered fugitives boarding, clothing, medical attention, legal counsel, and guidance farther north. In the six months from June to December 1839, the committee handled more than fifty cases and sent forty-six people to freedom. Most of these fugitives were from Virginia and Maryland, and most went to Canada via New York. Other destinations included Trinidad and England. By the fall of 1841, the group was handling more than three cases a week.

[caption id="attachment_18205" align="alignright" width="300"]A lithograph depicting scenes of societal and racial unrest in the City of Brotherly Love. This lithograph depicts scenes of societal and racial unrest in Philadelphia, including the Riot of 1842. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

A race riot in Philadelphia on August 1, 1842--the latest in a series that occurred during the 1830s and 1840s--stifled the committee as rioters targeted the Purvis home, leading the family to relocate to their property in Byberry. With Purvis gone, the committee essentially ceased to function. Charles W. Gardner (1782-1863), pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, revived it in late December 1843 with the help of black leaders Alexander Crummell (1819-98) and Hetty Reckless and white abolitionist J. Miller McKim (1810-74), a salaried agent of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society. This effort met with limited success, however, due to a number of factors that included disagreements among black and white abolitionists over the issue of direct resistance as the antislavery movement entered its more militant phase in the 1840s and 1850s.

A final iteration of the Vigilant Committee emerged in December 1852 in response to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Purvis came back to lead a new General Committee of nineteen and guide a new Acting Committee, which was chaired by William Still (1821-1902). Still, whose name became synonymous with the Philadelphia Underground Railroad, had been working as McKim’s assistant at the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society since 1847. This committee lasted about a decade.

[caption id="attachment_18206" align="alignright" width="212"]A depiction of Passmore Williamson being held in Moyamensing Prison. Passmore Williamson depicted here in prison on charges of contempt,  refused to tell authorities where they could find Jane Johnson, a slave he helped to rescue. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Perhaps its most famous action involved the efforts of Still and Passmore Williamson (1822-95) to rescue Jane Johnson (c1814-72). Johnson and her children were brought to Philadelphia by her owner, North Carolina politician and U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua John H. Wheeler (1806-82), in July 1855 as they made a side trip during their journey to South America. While in the city, Johnson approached local free blacks about her desire to escape, and they reached out on her behalf to the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society for assistance. After learning of her request for assistance, Williamson, Still, and five black dockworkers proceeded to the ferry where Johnson and Wheeler were, found her and the children, and helped them escape while holding the shocked slave owner at bay. Williamson, the only white involved in the bold rescue, served more than three months in Moyamensing Prison on charges of contempt of court for refusing to tell officials where they could find Johnson. Williamson’s imprisonment created a backlash that led many previously indifferent whites to embrace the antislavery cause. Two of the dockworkers who physically held back Wheeler served one week’s imprisonment for assault, but Wheeler eventually dropped the charges against Williamson and Still was acquitted of riot and assault charges.

Abolitionists active with the Vigilant Committees were the most radical among the nation’s antislavery leaders. They sought to work within the American political and legal system where possible to overturn slavery. At the same time, however, they remained willing to break the law if necessary to protect the rights of individuals in need of assistance.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Godey’s Lady’s Book

[caption id="attachment_17300" align="alignright" width="210"]Engraving of Godey's Lady's Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Sarah Josepha Hale was longtime editor of Godey's Lady's Book. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The first successful women’s magazine and most widely circulated magazine in the antebellum United States, Godey’s Lady’s Book offered fashion illustrations and advice, literary pieces, and articles on current events and popular culture.  Founded in Philadelphia in 1830 by Louis Antoine Godey (1804-1878) and edited for four decades by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), the magazine provided a platform for women’s interests and fostered traditions with a lasting impact on American culture.

Originally from New Hampshire, Hale came to Philadelphia in 1841 after gaining recognition in Boston, where she published a successful novel,  Northwood: A Tale of New England; edited the first women’s magazine, Ladies’ Magazine, beginning in 1828; and worked to foster historical consciousness, as in the erection of the Bunker Hill Monument.  A widow with five children, while in Boston she also published poetry and, most famously, the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”   

In 1837 Hale merged her magazine with Godey’s and became editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. By that time, Hale had gained a reputation for high editorial standards and for soliciting original work, often from women writers.  She also had established her philosophy of “Woman’s Influence” that argued for women assuming moral authority over husband and children by practicing domesticity and piety at home. She brought these practices and beliefs with her to Godey’s, where she oversaw tremendous expansion. When she assumed the editorship, Godey’s had approximately 10,000 subscribers, and by the 1860s it had over 150,000, despite its high cost of three dollars annually. Its role as the most popular magazine of its day provided Hale a platform through which to influence the nation’s tastes and the position of women. She included a section on women in the workforce, argued for women’s education, and published a number of special issues comprising only women’s writings.  Because they sought a national readership, neither Hale nor Godey allowed the publication to become embroiled directly in political matters, refusing even to mention, much less take a position on, sectionalism and the Civil War.  This decision cost them subscribers who had to turn elsewhere for news on the war.

[caption id="attachment_17298" align="alignright" width="186"]A print featured in Godey's Lady's Book featuring the latest fashions of the era. Among Godey's Lady's Book's popular features were tinted images showing the latest fashions of the nineteenth century. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The most popular features of the magazine included hand-tinted fashion plates in each issue, patterns for women to use in making garments at home, sheet music for piano, and short stories by authors like Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94), and Washington Irving (1783-1859), among others.  It also included news and features.

Godey’s Lady’s Book had a large impact on United States culture. Under Hale’s leadership the magazine hired Lydia H. Sigourney (1791-1865) to report on events in London.  Through her reports the magazine inaugurated such traditions as white wedding dresses and decorated evergreen trees at Christmas. Perhaps the most famous tradition to come out of Godey’s pages was Thanksgiving, a holiday which Hale persistently and successfully lobbied for and promoted by sharing recipes and features in Godey’s pages.

Godey sold the publication to John Hill Seyes Haulenbeek (?-1898) in 1877, and it lasted until Haulenbeek’s death in 1898.  Godey’s Lady’s Book made a lasting literary and social contribution in the U.S., offering women a venue to share their creativity and discuss issues that mattered to them.  It shaped American culture in ways still evident in the twenty-first century--from Thanksgiving dinners to evergreen Christmas trees to modern fashion magazines.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Saturday Evening Post

[caption id="attachment_17034" align="alignright" width="239"]A Saturday Evening Post cover painted by Norman Rckwell. The Saturday Evening Post became well known for its illustrations, especially its cover images. The magazine's most popular cover artist was Norman Rockwell. This Rockwell cover illustration was published in July 1929. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Saturday Evening Post, one of the oldest magazines in the United States, originated in Philadelphia in 1821 as a four-page weekly newspaper printed on the same equipment as Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. After switching to a magazine format in 1870, the Post grew in the twentieth century to reach more than a million readers each week with articles, commentary, fiction, and art, including iconic covers by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978).

Over the years the Saturday Evening Post published national news, moral commentary, and human interest articles. It became best known, however, for popular and literary fiction. Jack London (1876-1916) issued his novel The Call of the Wild in serialized form in the magazine in 1903, and its pages featured a number of literary icons–including Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), William Faulkner (1897-1962), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), and John Steinbeck (1902-68)–as well as popular writers like Agatha Christie (1890-1976) and Louis L’Amour (1908-88).  It also published the poetry of Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) and others.

The magazine also became well known for its illustrations. It featured the work of a number of the nation’s top cartoonists, most notably the Hazel series by Ted Key (1912-2008), but its cover images became even more notable. Cover artists included John Philip Falter (1910-82), Charles Chickering (1891-1970), George Hughes (1907-1989), and many others, but the most popular was Rockwell, who was discovered by Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer (1867-1937) in 1916. Rockwell’s art, particularly his covers for the Post, remain popular for their depiction of everyday American life and their chronicle of major events in United States history, showcasing iconic images such as Rosie the Riveter in World War II or the heroic young Ruby Bridges during the civil rights movement.

The Saturday Evening Post began its rise to fame in 1897 when Cyrus H.K. Curtis (1850-1933), founder of the Curtis Publishing Company in 1891 and of The Ladies Home Journal, purchased it for one thousand dollars. Two years after Curtis bought the Post, Lorimer began editing the magazine, and he remained at the helm until 1936. During this time the magazine’s circulation increased dramatically, from two thousand to over three million copies a year, and in 1910 the company, after changing ownership, built a grand headquarters at the corner of Sixth and Walnut Streets near Independence Hall.

[caption id="attachment_17037" align="alignright" width="300"]The Curtis Building located at Sixth and Walnut Street. The Saturday Evening Post’s circulation grew from two thousand to over three million copies per issue. This growth allowed the Curtis Publishing Company in 1910 to build a grand headquarters at Sixth and Walnut Streets near Independence Hall. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Despite its success in the early decades of the twentieth century, readership began to decline in the late 1950s. This was due in part to controversy over columnist Garet Garrett’s (1878-1954) vocal stance against Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, as well as to the growth of television, which began to overshadow print media for news and information. As the periodical’s popularity declined, it was less able to acquire pieces by prominent authors and illustrators, further lessening its appeal. In the late 1960s the magazine accused University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (1913-83) and University of Georgia coach Wally Butts (1905-73) of conspiring to fix a game between their teams. This resulted in a defamation lawsuit and an order to pay over three million dollars to Butts.

The Saturday Evening Post ceased publication in 1969 only to be revived in 1971 after its parent company, Curtis Publishing Company, was acquired by Beurt SerVaas, an Indianapolis industrialist. SerVaas began to publish the Post quarterly from Indianapolis.  In 1982 the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society, founded by Dr. Corena “Cory” SerVaas (the wife of Beurt SerVaas), acquired the Post and reoriented it to focus on health and medicine. Corena SerVaas founded the Saturday Evening Post Society and transferred to it the ownership of the magazine.

The periodical’s history took a new turn in 2013 when the SerVaas’s daughter Joan became chief executive and publisher and returned its focus to a broad range of topics and increased publishing to six times a year. The magazine returned to Philadelphia and established offices in the Public Ledger Building, next to the Curtis Building where it was based in its heyday.  Redesigned as a bimonthly news magazine featuring in-depth coverage of the top issues of the day, from big banks to gun control, the Saturday Evening Post in many ways returned to its roots.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Pennsylvania Hall

Pennsylvania gained a reputation as the birthplace of American abolition soon after the American Revolution, but that status caused unrest as debates over slavery grew contentious in the antebellum years. The tension led to a number of riots, one of the most notable being the 1838 destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, a meeting place for antislavery groups on Sixth Street about two blocks north of Independence Hall

[caption id="attachment_16554" align="alignright" width="300"]Despite the huge crowd, the attack on Pennsylvania Hall was remarkably calm. Most of the crowd only watched the blaze and prevented firefighters from extinguishing it. (Library Company of Philadelphia) Despite a horde of spectators, the attack on Pennsylvania Hall was remarkably calm. Most of the crowd only watched the blaze, though the group was a buffer between firefighters and the blaze. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The riot at Pennsylvania Hall occurred at a time of backlash against abolitionism, despite its long history in the region. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), the nation’s first and best-known antislavery group, helped secure Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law, the nation’s first, in 1780.  In 1794 abolitionist allies from New York, Delaware, and New Jersey had joined efforts with the PAS to form the American Convention of Abolition Societies, which met a number of times between 1794 and 1829, four times in Philadelphia. The group held its final meeting in Philadelphia in 1837, a pivotal year that saw the end of that organization but the beginning of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society (PASS), whose members sought immediate rather than gradual abolition of slavery.  When abolitionist women and men started the process of bringing this more aggressive type of antislavery to the greater Philadelphia area by forming the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society (PFASS) in 1833 and the Philadelphia Antislavery Society in 1834, many PAS members not only welcomed but joined the new organizations. 

[caption id="attachment_16556" align="alignright" width="300"]Pennsylvania Hall before the fire. (Library Company of Philadelphia) Pennsylvania Hall before the fire. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Soon, however, the rise of immediate abolition agitation, combined with the success of the PAS, created a backlash that resulted in churches and meetinghouses refusing to rent facilities for antislavery gatherings. Gradual and immediate abolitionists in Philadelphia then joined forces to form the Pennsylvania Hall Association, to raise money for and oversee construction of a very large and modern meeting hall at  Sixth and Haines Streets (between Arch and Race Streets).  PFASS members played a large role in raising funds to build the hall, collecting roughly $40,000 within a year.  Many members of the Pennsylvania Hall Association were local white Quakers affiliated with one or more of the region’s antislavery groups. Black antislavery leaders in the antislavery community also played important roles in fundraising and in overseeing construction, which began in 1837 and ended in time for a grand opening celebration beginning on May 14, 1838.

During its brief existence—three days from start of the grand opening to its destruction—Pennsylvania Hall housed the offices of the eastern district of the PASS, a free produce store, an antislavery reading room, the antislavery Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper, several meeting rooms, two large lecture rooms, and a large hall known as the “Grand Saloon.”   The Association celebrated the hall’s opening by inviting abolitionists from all over the northeastern United States to attend a multiple-day ceremony that included meetings of the PASS, the Philadelphia Lyceum, and the Antislavery Convention of American Women.

Resistance to the hall and what it symbolized emerged immediately, and ended with one of Philadelphia’s most famous acts of riot and destruction.  As the abolitionists gathered, onlookers--already resentful of the abolitionists whom they blamed for the growing black population in the city and the resulting job competition--spread rumors of racial “amalgamation” and inappropriate behavior at the hall.

Crowds formed around the building immediately upon its opening, and on the third day of the conference, when women inside the hall began to speak about the horrors of slavery, before an audience that included black and white men and women, the crowd outside began to throw bricks through the windows.  Despite half-hearted efforts by Mayor John Swift (1790-1873) to disperse the crowd, the attack escalated on May 17, 1838. A group later identified as dock workers broke down the doors, allowing a diverse white mob to enter the hall and set a number of fires, fueling them by the gas that was piped in for lighting.  Sheriff John G. Watmough (1793-1861) gathered about a dozen of the troublemakers, but was prevented by the crowd from maintaining custody. By the end of the night Pennsylvania Hall was a smoldering shell.

During the following decade the abolitionists unsuccessfully sought justice in the court system. No one was convicted of the crime, though dozens were arrested, and five men were investigated for their role in the incident.  Finally, in 1847, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared the county responsible for damages, and the Pennsylvania Hall Association received $27,942.27. 

Though the hall stood for only a short time, it had an important and lasting effect on the regional and national antislavery movements.  People who had previously ignored abolitionists, or expressed irritation at them for “agitating” and endangering the Union, began to reconsider their stance in light of this obvious attack upon free speech.  Abolitionists took advantage of this opportunity to argue that those who denied black freedom also sought to hamper white freedom. The women contributed to this endeavor by marketing a variety of goods made of wood from Pennsylvania Hall. 

In the end, the hall offered a graphic symbol of the struggle for both black and white freedom, and a reminder of the power of proslavery forces in the United States.  Abolitionists were able to use this symbol to portray their cause as a defensive movement for freedom and to tout the proslavery position as a danger to white as well as black liberty.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

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