Quest for Freedom


The arrival in 1684 of the British merchant ship Isabella in Philadelphia with a cargo of 150 Africans to be sold as slaves had moral, social, and economic consequences that  impacted Philadelphia in profound ways. The unpaid labor of enslaved Africans helped to build and shape the social and cultural life of the colonial city. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780 that set in motion a process to eliminate slavery from Pennsylvania by 1847. The United States Constitution (1787) left the question of slavery up to each state thereby setting in motion decades of struggle pitting those advocating abolition of all slavery on one side against those who wanted to maintain the status quo.

Image shown: Burning of Pennsylvania Hall, 1838 John Sartain (1808-1897); engraving.

Ultimately the conflict over slavery erupted into the Civil War (1861 to1864) when a group of Southern states broke away from the Union and formed the Confederacy. During the height of the war President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves with in the rebellious states are, and henceforward shall be free.” People held in slavery in the border states and the parts of the Confederacy already under Northern control were not covered by this act. The Emancipation Proclamation helped clear the way for black men to join the Army and Navy, and by the end of the war almost 200,000 soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union.  
The Northern victory in the Civil War set the stage for the passage of amendments to the United States Constitution to change the civil status of blacks in America. The 13th amendment (1865) ended slavery in the United States and its territories. The 14th amendment (1868) established that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens. The 15th amendment (1870) declared that citizens could not be denied the right to vote based on race, color, or preexisting condition. Even though these rights were guaranteed to black Americans, deep-seated racism in both the North and the South meant that most blacks were unable to enjoy the most basic civil rights and economic security.
From the end of the Civil War in 1864 till the Passage of the Voting Rights Act one hundred years later in 1964, black Americans struggled in both the south and the north to exercise their constitutional rights and to challenge “Jim Crow” laws and practices that enforced racial segregation in housing, public accommodation, and the work place while effectively removing blacks from politics through the imposition of  poll taxes and literacy tests. The 20th century Civil Rights Movement, an extension of the anti-slavery movement, that culminates in the 1960s was built upon decades of work on the part of blacks and whites, north and south, who were determined to make the promise of freedom real in both law and custom.

The Philadelphia History Museum Quest for Freedom program is a part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program of the National Park Service.


Early Anti-slavery Activism

Visionary Philadelphians began speaking out and organizing against slavery during the formative decades of the Pennsylvania colony, making Philadelphia a national and international center for anti-slavery activism by the 1770s and into the 1800s. The first anti-slavery petition created by a religious body in the English colonies was presented by Daniel Pastorius of Germantown, a German Quaker, to his congregation in 1688. The petition stimulated debate about slave owning and slave trading among Quakers. By 1776, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banned its members from owning slaves.
Anti-slavery activism took many forms in early Philadelphia. In 1738 former slave owner, Quaker convert, and anti-slavery tract writer Benjamin Lay made a dramatic public display of his sentiments at the Friends Yearly Meeting. The formation of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in Philadelphia in 1775 created the first organized effort to oppose slavery through the courts and political system. Anthony Benezet, who wrote and spoke out against slavery, took his activism in the direction of offering classes in his home for black children until his death in 1784. The Free African Society, formed in 1785, addressed its members’ spiritual needs and provided basic social services. The Society signaled the aspirations of black Philadelphians and anticipated their activism in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.
 During the antebellum period, Philadelphia was home to a growing African American community that was mostly poor but had leaders and institutions that embraced the anti-slavery movement and forged links with like-minded white activists. Together and separately they created networks to assist freedom seekers as they made their way to a new life and worked to change race-based laws and social practices.
These fourteen objects from the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent each reveal a different story about the quest for freedom from slavery. Some objects, like the American Anti-Slavery Society Declaration and the presentation pitcher, tell stories about African Americans and whites working together through organizations to end slavery. Others, like the shackles, reveal the inhumanity of slavery. The story of the free labor child’s dress is an example of non-violent resistance as a way to challenge slavery. It stands in stark contrast to the story told by the portrait of John Brown, who supported violence as a strategy to end slavery. The dramatic story behind the coverlet reveals how the network of Underground Railroad activists worked to support people seeking freedom from slavery.

Here are some questions to consider as you look at the images of these 14 objects and read their stories.

  • What did Philadelphians do to advance the cause of freedom for enslaved people in their city and the country at large?
  • What stories about the quest for freedom from slavery can we learn from the objects Philadelphians created, bought, and used in the struggle for freedom? 

For further reading about these stories:

Quest for Freedom from slavery
14 objects and their stories:

Norris dish, c. 1670–1680.
London silversmith mark “S”; silver.
History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.

The freedom story related to this large silver dish demonstrates that life is precarious and nature is powerful. The dish, made by an English silversmith in London, was owned by Thomas Norris, a Quaker merchant and slave trader in Jamaica with ties to Philadelphia.  

On the morning of June 7, 1692, Port Royal, Jamaica [show location on a map] is a bustling seaport. Its merchants are wealthy and the harbor is filled with ships bringing goods from North America and England and returning loaded with sugar, rum, molasses, and enslaved people. At 11:43 a.m., residents hear a thundering noise followed by shock waves from three earthquakes. The sea recedes, only to quickly sweep back and flood the land, destroying property and lives. By the afternoon, Port Royal is a ghost town. Thomas Norris has perished in the tsunami.

In 1856, descendents of Thomas Norris inscribe a story on the rim of this silver dish that survived the cataclysm. The story, passed down through generations of their family, describes a cradle floating in the water with this dish on top. Beneath the dish, survivors of the tsunami discover a small child they identify as the daughter of a man enslaved to Thomas Norris. This man had tried to save Norris before they both drowned. The inscription recounts that Thomas’ son Isaac Norris of Philadelphia receives the child and dish and returns with them to Philadelphia. The child grows into a woman and lives out her life in Philadelphia as a member of the black community. The inscription states that she dies a free person in 1751, but we do not know how many years she lived enslaved and how many as a free woman. The words on the bowl also state that this woman’s daughter lives as a free woman until her death at age 82 in 1802.
Historians have no way to verify this story or know the names of the woman and her child. Like many family stories, elements of truth co-exist with some aspects that may not be accurate. Did the child’s father try to save her by placing a valuable piece of silver with the Norris crest in the cradle to establish a link with the Norris family? It is not likely that we will know the answer to this question.
Historians know from other sources that Isaac Norris arrived in Jamaica on September 13, 1692 when he received news of his father’s death and his sister’s illness. He remained in Jamaica into early 1693. In 1695 he wrote to his mother-in-law, who lived in the Philadelphia area, that if she decided to part with little Bessy he wanted the child to be given to him, and he would pay “full Value.”  Is it possible that Bessy was the child in the cradle?  We also know that Isaac Norris did not like the slave trade more for practical than moral reasons, but he continued to be involved with it until 1732, more than fifteen years after the 1715 declaration in which Quakers took an official position in opposition to slavery.
The dramatic story inscribed on this dish poses many questions, and it helps us to think about the role of individual action and chance in the quest for freedom.          

Shackles, date unknown.
Maker unknown; iron.
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.

Slave owners, overseers, and slave traders used restraint items to control the movements of and to punish enslaved people. During the nineteenth century, anti-slavery speakers would show their audiences items such as shackles to dramatize the inhumanity of slavery in the hopes of garnering more supporters for the abolition of slavery. We do not who made these shackles or where they were used.

Pennsylvania Abolition Society membership certificate, 1792.
Maker unknown; ink on paper.
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Friends Historical Association Collection.

The Pennsylvania Society for promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and for the Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage and for improving the Condition of the African Race (PAS),formed in Philadelphia on April 14, 1775 at the Rising Sun Tavern. PAS members consisted of a small group of white men who raised their voices against slavery when few did in the 1700s. They provided legal aid for African Americans, supported efforts to educate black children, and actively worked to change repressive laws. The PAS used the dedication, skills, economic resources, and social and political standing of its members to accomplish its mission. The creation of this organization dedicated to racial justice catapulted Philadelphia to the center of the western world’s emerging abolitionist movement.
Although the PAS worked for racial justice, the organization remained racially segregated until the 1830s, and women could not join until well after the Civil War. The initial group disbanded by December 1775 and reformed in 1784 after the Revolutionary War. The PAS continues to exist today, its focus on the third leg of its mission to improve the condition of the African race.

American Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1833.
Maker unknown; ink on silk.
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Friends Historical Association Collection.

The American Anti-Slavery Society held its initial meeting, organized by founder William Lloyd Garrison, in Philadelphia on December 6, 1833. This commemorative declaration printed on silk publicized the belief of the society that the immediate emancipation of enslaved people was necessary, a controversial position in 1833 even among abolitionists.
The declaration’s signers, an interracial group of men from Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York,  Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont, set out the philosophical and moral reasoning behind their anti-slavery position as agreed upon at the society’s organizing meeting. The declaration stated:
“The right to enjoy liberty is inalienable. To evade it, is to usurp the prerogative of Jehovah. Every man has a right to his own body—to the products of his own labor-to the protection of law, and to common advantages of society. It is piracy to buy or steal a native in Africa, and subject him to servitude. Surely the sin is as great to enslave an American as an African… those laws which are now in force,   admitting the right of slavery, are therefore before God utterly null and void; being an audacious infringement on the law of nature, a base overthrow of the very foundations of the social compact,….a presumptuous transgression of all the holy commandments—and that therefore they ought instantly to be abrogated…”
The imagery on the declaration also reveals the depth of feeling the signers had about the immorality of slavery and their personal commitment to action on behalf of the anti-slavery cause. The image at the top of the declaration sets the tone for the document by illustrating a dramatic passage from the Book of Psalms 91:13: “Thou shall tread upon the lion and the adder; the young lion and the dragon thou shall trample under feet.” 
The declaration put forth an ambitious action plan for the American Anti-Slavery Society that included organizing anti-slavery societies everywhere in the land, circulating anti-slavery publications, persuading the press and religious leaders to speak out against slavery, removing slavery from religious institutions, and committing to buying only products made by free labor.
The convention featured in the declaration was the catalyst for Philadelphia women to organize the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society a few days later.
Supporters who chose to display this declaration did so at personal risk, including violence and harassment against them or their families, loss of business, and loss of friends.
Garrison, a leading abolitionist who published the well-known anti-slavery publication The Liberator and who traveled widely in the northern states promoting abolition, had first spoken on the topic in Philadelphia in 1830. Prominent local abolitionists James and Lucretia Mott arranged for him to speak at the Franklin Institute building, now the home of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

Burning of Pennsylvania Hall, 1838.
John Sartain (1808-1897); engraving.

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

Abolitionists raised funds to build Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia as a place to hold lectures, sell free labor products, distribute anti-slavery publications, and provide office and meeting spaces for anti-slavery groups. In 1838 the grand hall was destroyed by a fire incited by a violent mob and left to burn by the city’s volunteer fire companies.
Representatives from several national anti-slavery groups were invited to meet in the new structure on May 14-17, 1838. They saw that supporters spared no expense in constructing and outfitting the building: the façade resembled that of a Greek temple; the interior was decorated in blue and white, with chairs upholstered in blue plush and sofas in blue damask; and the second floor lecture hall alone accommodated 3,000 people.
The opening event on May 14 featured Philadelphia lawyer David Paul Brown, well known in abolitionist circles. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier read a poem he had written for the event. Abolitionists—male and female, black and white—flocked to this and other events in the hall. Men and women who met in the same group were considered “promiscuous,” shocking many both within and outside abolitionist circles. Interracial audiences and individuals who socialized with people of another race were often referred to as “amalgamators,” and proved provocative to bystanders who opposed abolition and interracial groups.
As they entered and exited Pennsylvania Hall, abolitionists were heckled and then assaulted by a stone-throwing mob. On the evening of May 17, the mob broke into the empty building, collected the draperies and furniture, and set them on fire. Volunteer fire companies doused the adjacent buildings but did nothing to stop the burning of the hall. The mob headed south towards the heart of the city’s African American community, where they attacked the First African Presbyterian Church and the Shelter for Colored Orphans. Only at this point did Mayor Swift order the police to restrain the mob.
Several months after of the destruction Pennsylvania Hall, its managers brought a suit against the County of Philadelphia for damages. At the trial the county defended itself by accusing the abolitionists of causing the fire. The county’s reasoning: hosting an interracial meeting was provocative. The litigation against the city lasted nine years and landed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The managers of Pennsylvania Hall finally collected $27,942.77, much less than the hall had cost to be built.
Artist and abolitionist John Sartain reacted by creating this engraving of the burning of Pennsylvania Hall for a commemorative book about the hall and its destruction. Sartain based his engraving on a sketch he made during the attack on the building. As a committed abolitionist and a member since 1835 of the Philadelphia City Anti-Slavery Society of the First Congregation Unitarian Church, led by outspoken abolitionist William H. Furness, Sartain attended the opening events at the hall. Other political art by Sartain includes portraits of Cinque, leader of a slave uprising aboard the ship Amistad;and Osceola, the Seminole chief who unsuccessfully resisted Andrew Jackson’s campaign to drive his people from their homeland in Florida.
Some individuals reacted to the burning by increasing their resolve to continue expanding their circle of interracial friends and colleagues. Others reacted by shying away from interracial meetings and friendships. Abolitionists in Philadelphia never again built such a grand hall, opting to rent spaces or to purchase smaller, less extraordinary buildings for their meetings and conventions.

Free labor child’s dress, c. 1840s.
Maker unknown; cotton.
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Friends Historical Association Collection.

Abolitionists known as abstentionists supported the free produce movement, a form of consumer boycott, as an attempt to merge their political and moral ideals and spending. At the height of the free produce movement in the 1830s, there were an estimated 26 societies in different parts of the country. For women, both black and white, abstention from slave-grown produce was one of the most popular forms of anti-slavery activism because they could use their influence in the home to make a political statement.
Philadelphia became a center for this movement with groups, stores, and periodic fairs that specialized in promoting and distributing non-slave products. Most of the country’s 53 free labor stores were in Philadelphia, including the longest operating store, owned and run by Lydia White for sixteen years. The Philadelphia Female Association for Promoting the Manufacture and Use of Free Cotton, an all-white female group, organized in 1829 to strike out against slavery by not purchasing its products. The Colored Female Produce Society followed suit 1831. In 1838, a Requited (non-slave) Labor Convention met in Philadelphia and established the American Free Produce Association, which became the main buyer for these products. Prominent abolitionist Lucretia Mott becomes the group’s treasurer, and five women served on the executive committee.

The American Free Produce Association took the lead in finding free labor products by using its members’ familial and friendship networks to identify non-slave owning farmers in the South, mainly in North Carolina. These producers created bolts of cotton for the association to sell to free labor stores in the northern states. Finding sources for non-slave produced sugar proved challenging, but they did locate sources in Puerto Rico, the British West Indies, Mexico, Java, and Manila. The high demand for sugar meant there was never enough free labor sugar, forcing customers to switch to maple sugar or sugar made from potatoes or corn. These substitutes for cane sugar were unpopular, however.

Families who purchased free labor products typically paid higher prices and received goods of lesser quality than that of the slave-produced counterpart. Participating in this boycott had a direct impact on a family’s quality of life and budget. Many free labor advocates found this type of non-violent resistance challenging and looked to their comrades for words of encouragement and support to keep up their resolve. Conventions such as the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women held in Philadelphia in 1839 issued inspiring statements urging supporters to continue their commitment to free labor products:
“Resolved, That this Convention recommend to abolitionists to abstain from the use of such products, that we may not be guilty of participation in the sin which we condemn….we may add that of a pure example.”

Musket or rifle, c. 1855.
Suhl, Germany; mixed metals and wood.
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.

John Brown’s raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859 is a critical moment in the history of abolition. The event figures prominently in the long build-up to the American Civil War, and Harpers Ferry is recognized today both as a national park and historic site. Abolitionists took many shapes, and Brown was exceptional in his willingness to adopt violent means toward a vision of equality.
The raid occurred roughly three years after the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre, when Brown violently attacked and murdered five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. In the interim, Brown kept a low profile as he planned and raised funds for an elaborate scheme that would arm and liberate slaves throughout the South. Much of this time was spent in Philadelphia, where a number of nationally prominent abolitionists resided and sympathetic and well-endowed elite could contribute to the larger cause.
Raiding the federal armory at Harpers Ferry would be crucial to Brown’s planned uprising. The plan, however, failed. Brown was overtaken at Harpers Ferry by local residents and soldiers called in from Washington, two of whom would play major roles in the Civil War, Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. A number of Brown’s party was killed over the course of the raid, including his two sons, Oliver and Watson. Brown was soon thereafter sentenced and hanged in Charles Town, Virginia.
His death was felt throughout the nation, whether as shock or grief. Philadelphia, given its deep abolitionist culture and significant black population, mourned John Brown’s death. When his body traveled through the city in December 1859, the streets were so crowded that City officials feared violence would erupt between blacks and pro-slavery belligerents.
Among those mourning was Robert Purvis, owner of a musket believed to be used by John Brown during the raid. The musket is one of the few artifacts privately obtained in the aftermath of Harpers Ferry. How it reached Philadelphia is unclear, but it is fitting that the musket would fall into the hands of Mr. Purvis.  A wealthy Philadelphian of mixed race, Purvis and his family devoted their lives to the cause of equal rights in America and abroad. Though not as immediately recognizable as some of his contemporaries, Purvis was active in progressive causes throughout the nineteenth century and worked closely alongside such anti-slavery luminaries as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lucretia Mott. His 1898 obituary in the New York Times labeled him the “President of the Underground Railroad.”  A powerful orator, he reportedly spoke with emotion about Brown during the 1859 processional. In 1889 he presented the musket to Francis Newtown Thorpe, a celebrated constitutional historian at the University of Pennsylvania. The musket is a testament to John Brown’s close relationship with the city of Philadelphia and, more broadly, the city’s central role in the national abolitionist movement.


Stephen Smith, c. 1840-1850.
James Stidun (dates unknown).
Oil on canvas.
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent,

Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, given to the Society by Mrs. Henrietta Clemens Mouserone, special representative of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Stephen Smith (c. 1795-1873) was one of a number of prominent free black residents in Philadelphia during the mid-1800s. The portrait depicts Smith later in life, likely done shortly after his family’s move to the city in 1842. Born into slavery in Cecil County, Maryland, Smith was indentured to Revolutionary War Brevet Major Thomas Boude. The Boude family moved to Columbia, Pennsylvania, when Smith was a young boy. There he learned the lumber trade and helped oversee Boude’s local operation. At the age of 19 or 20, Smith purchased his freedom and stayed in Columbia to operate his own coal and lumberyard. The town, including about 35 black property owners, offered opportunities for the young black entrepreneur. Smith’s lumber company and real estate holdings made him the wealthiest of Columbia’s black residents.   An outspoken abolitionist, Smith was the frequent target of white antagonism. Smith’s business office was burned during riots in 1834 that pitted irate white residents against black property owners. In 1842, Smith partnered with William Whipper to oversee the Columbia operations, while he and his wife Harriet Lee relocated to Philadelphia. Shortly after the Civil War, Whipper revealed the partners’ involvement in the Underground Railroad, transporting fugitive slaves from Philadelphia via railroad cars, then ferrying them by freighter across Lake Erie to Canada. The shipping routes and the wealth of Smith and Whipper provided ideal cover for enslaved people seeking freedom.
Despite violence directed at them, Smith and his family remained active in the economic, political and religious life of Philadelphia’s African American community. Ordained to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Smith gave generously to many charities, including Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he helped fund Zion Mission Church at Seventh and Lombard Streets. He built Smith’s Beneficial Hall as a meeting place for black organizations. The hall was burned during the race riots of August 1842, as were a number of African American residences in the city.
A savvy real estate investor, Smith owned more than 100 lots, buildings and homes at the time of his death in 1873. He left the bulk of his estate to Zion Mission and the founding of the Stephen Smith Home for Aged and Infirmed Colored People, a residence for older African Americans at 1050 Belmont Avenue. One of the oldest such homes in the country, the Smith Home continues today as Centennial Village at 4400 Girard Avenue. A Pennsylvania state historical marker at the site recognizes Smith and his legacy.
Very little is known of the artist John Stidun. The PHM collection also contains Stidun’s pendant portrait of Smith’s wife, Harriet Lee Smith. The donor of both portraits, Smith’s grandniece Henrietta Clemens Mouserone, identifies Stidun as a “prominent Negro artist” in her manuscript of Smith’s life. The portrait’s canvas has the stamp of a Philadelphia store, but there is no listing for Stidun in the Philadelphia directories. Since its transfer to PHM in 2002, the portrait of Stephen Smith and the story of this prominent nineteenth century Philadelphia businessman, philanthropist, and anti-slavery activist has been regularly presented. The painting of Smith has been exhibited in a display of portraits of Philadelphia African Americans in the PHM collection, featured on the PHM Web site, and included in the museum’s Quest for Freedom program.

Presentation pitcher, 1841.
Conrad Bard and Robert Lamont, engraved by John Sartain; silver.
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.

David Paul Brown (1795-1872) was part of a small group of Philadelphia lawyers who, as members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, represented endangered African Americans, free and enslaved, through the court system. At a testimonial event orchestrated by abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist Robert Purvis to honor Brown for his legal work on behalf of enslaved people seeking freedom and free blacks accused of being runaways, Purvis presented Brown with two matching silver pitchers. The inscription on the pitcher in the PHM collection (the other is in the Detroit Institute of Arts) reads:
“Presented to David Paul Brown Esqr. By the disenfranchised citizens of Phila. in testimony of their appreciation of his moral courage, and general disinterestedness, in advocating for the rights of the oppressed, without regard to complexion or condition Jany 1841.”

The engraving depicts the iconic abolitionist image of a slave kneeling with hands clasped. The ceremony, held at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, attracted a large audience of congregants that filled the building. Purvis gave a short speech in which he thanked Brown in the name of “an oppressed portion of your fellow citizens of this city,” for the services he had given without compensation; “God grant unto you, Sir, unmeasured blessings here and the reward of the Christian philanthropist in the untold joys of a glorious eternity.”  
Brown apprenticed as a lawyer at Rawle & Henderson, founded in 1783, the oldest legal practice in the United States. William Rawle, one of the firm’s founding partners, introduced Brown to using the legal system to fight slavery. Brown and Rawle argued a wide variety of cases with the goal of securing free status for clients and their children.
Philadelphia’s proximity to Delaware and Maryland, states where slavery was legal, combined with the city’s Underground Railroad network of people, safe houses, and transportation, made the city a focal point for freedom seekers. By the 1830s, slave catchers also focused on Philadelphia, roaming the city’s African American neighborhoods seeking runaways in the hopes of getting bounty money for returning people to slavery. Changes in 1826 to the 1793 federal Fugitive Slave Law contributed to this difficult situation by making it easier for slave catchers to obtain warrants to apprehend those accused of being runaways and bring them before a magistrate. The generally hostile environment for African Americans in Philadelphia further enabled slave catchers to roam the city’s streets at will terrorizing black residents.


Freedom certificate for Jacob Martin, 1839 or 50.

Edward Hurst notary and Richard Ellis witness; ink on paper.
PhiladelphiaHistory Museum at the Atwater Kent, Friends Historical Association Collection.

Freedom or identity papers proved that the holder was a free person of color. Typically freedom papers provided a brief physical description of the individual and details regarding when, where, and who declared the holder to be a free person. Regardless of whether a person of color was seeking freedom, had just arrived in a non-slave state, or had always been free, having a freedom certificate made it easier and safer to move about the city and to travel.     
When Quakers freed their slaves in the 1770s before the Revolution, the individual Quaker meeting kept a book of manumissions as the official record. The freed person received a pre-printed form that detailed their civil status.  After the Revolution slavery generally was a matter of state law and each state decided how to record free people of color and the type of document the person would be issued to show they were legally free. When slave owners manumitted their slaves, their freedom would be recorded at a government office or court. The newly freed person would be given “freedom papers”.  When Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780 which decreed that all children born after its passage were free, and that black children born earlier would be freed at age 28, Pennsylvania set up a system to give “freedom papers” to emancipated blacks to protect them from out-of-state slave catchers. The state established registries for “freedom papers” to prove a person’s status in the event of the loss or damage to the certificate. 

Coverlet c. 1855.
Maker unknown; cotton.

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.

Businessman Passmore Williamson (1822-1895), a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, received this coverlet while serving time in Moyamensing Prison for contempt of court in the case of escaped slave Jane Johnson and her two children. Williamson, who had participated in the rescue of Jane Johnson but had no knowledge of her whereabouts, refused to satisfy Judge John Kane’s request to reveal Johnson’s location. The national anti-slavery press made Williamson and the Jane Johnson case famous. During his imprisonment from July 27 to November 3, 1855, several hundred anti-slavery leaders and activists, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, visited Williamson. Many brought gifts to make his cell comfortable, and others produced images of him in prison to drum up support for his release and the resolution of Johnson’s case. After months of trying to coerce Williamson to admit that he knew the details of Johnson’s rescue, Judge Kane finally accepted Williamson’s story and released him on November 3, 1855.

Background on the Jane Johnson case On July 18, 1855 Jane Johnson, an enslaved woman, and her two sons, Daniel and Isaiah, were traveling with their white owner, Colonel John H. Wheeler, from North Carolina when they had a layover in Philadelphia. By that year Pennsylvania law stated that enslaved persons in the state had the right to claim their freedom, which meant that slave owners traveling through Pennsylvania with slaves risked losing their “property.” The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act did not apply because escaped slaves were considered illegal runaways. Concerned that Johnson might run away, Wheeler locked Jane and her sons in a room in the Bloodgood Hotel. Left alone and aware that Pennsylvania was a free state, Johnson alerted one of the hotel’s black staff members that she wanted abolitionists to help her claim her freedom. When Wheeler and Johnson later boarded the ferry, Passmore Williamson and William Still took Johnson and her children aside while six black porters surrounded Wheeler. Separating Johnson from Wheeler gave her the opportunity to state her desire to be free. Abolitionists took her and her children off the ferry and sent them to a series of safe houses.
Wheeler protested Johnson’s rescue, claiming that she wanted to stay with him. He requested that his friend, pro-slavery Democrat Judge Kane, intervene to have Johnson and the children returned to him. Kane targeted Passmore Williamson for his role in the rescue and ordered him to reveal Johnson’s location. Kane’s logic was that Williamson, as the only white person and therefore the only citizen involved in the rescue and escape, bore full responsibility for Johnson’s actions and those of the others involved, who were all African American. Kane acquitted William Still and four of the black porters involved in the rescue. Two of the porters, John Ballard and William Curtis, received $10 fines and week long prison sentences. Williamson did not know the details of Johnson’s escape and the network of safe houses. Kane would not accept Williamson’s testimony, charged him with contempt of court, and sentenced him to prison.
During Williamson’s imprisonment, Jane Johnson wrote to Judge Kane, asserting it was her decision to claim her freedom and go into hiding. On August 29, Johnson emerged from hiding and made a surprise appearance in Judge Kane’s court, where she reiterated that she alone decided to leave Wheeler and to claim her freedom. Johnson exited the court house pursued by federal marshals, but supporters quickly whisked her away to safety.

Major Martin Robinson Delany, c. 1868.
Edward Herline; hand colored lithograph.
History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Friends Historical Association Collection.

During the Civil War, Martin Robinson Delany (1812-1885) took a leadership role in recruiting African American men to join the newly created United States Colored Troops. He traveled from his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Ohio, and Illinois, where he and others set up recruiting offices and organized rallies to increase enlistments. On February 2, 1865 Delany met with President Lincoln to propose creating a corps of black men led by black officers who would march into the South to win over Southern blacks to the Union cause. Lincoln embraced the idea, and on February 27, 1865 Delany became the first African American to achieve the rank of major for a field unit in the United States Army.
This lithograph celebrates Delany’s personal achievement and that which he achieved for all African Americans. He is portrayed as an officer and leader replete with the symbols of his rank: uniform with sash and epaulettes, bayonet, and a well groomed horse. The artist depicts African American foot soldiers in full field uniform bearing arms, a reflection of the dramatic change that occurred over the course of the Civil War. The soldiers are pictured carrying an American flag, symbolic of citizenship and patriotism. When the war began, President Lincoln initially rejected blacks as soldiers. As the war continued, however, the need for additional troops persuaded Lincoln and military leadership to recruit black troops. It was not until 1864 that the U.S. Congress passed legislation giving black soldiers equal pay, arms, equipment, and medical services.
After the Civil War, Delany remained in the Army serving under General Rufus Saxton in the 52nd U.S. Colored Troops. He then transferred to the Freedmen’s Bureau, where he remained until he resigned from the military service in 1865.
Delany as Abolitionist, Underground Railroad Activist, and Author
As a young man Martin Delany became a central figure in Pittsburgh’s Underground Railroad network and often was referred to as the main “conductor” for western Pennsylvania. Delany advocated unrestricted equality for African Americans, a position that placed him at the radical edge of the abolition movement. In 1843 he founded a newspaper, the Mystery, that provided him a vehicle to present news about the black community and to promote abolition. In 1847 Frederick Douglass invited Delany to become a co-editor of his newspaper the North Star, one of the country’s leading anti-slavery publications.
Delany wrote both fiction and non-fiction works that dealt with the themes of slavery, race, black culture, and politics. His novel Blake: Or The Huts of America was the first novel by an African American published in the United States. Published in 1859 and 1862, Blake brought forward aspects of black culture Delany thought Harriet Beecher missed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His 1852 non-fiction work, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered presented his view that blacks did not have a future in the United States and suggested that they seek to settle elsewhere, such as Canada or South America or, possibly, Africa. After his visit to Africa in 1859-60 to explore the possibility of American blacks settling in the area that is now Nigeria, Delany presented findings from his trip in The Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party, first published in 1861. His 1879 work, The Principia of Ethnology,advocated pride in African heritage and Africa’s self-regeneration.

Octavius V. Catto African-American Elks Lodge banner, 1903.
Maker unknown; velvet, gold embroidery, fringe and wood.
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent
Collection Fund purchase and conservation, 2004-05.

The banner commemorates the 1903 opening of the Octavius V. Catto Lodge, the Philadelphia home of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World (IBPOEW), also known as the Black Elks. Fraternal organizations such as the Elks were increasingly common in the late nineteenth century, though such groups often established distinct chapters segregated by race. The Black Elks, formed in Cincinnati in 1898 by Arthur Riggs and B.F. Howard, were a controversial offshoot of the exclusively white Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks (BPOE). After failing to gain acceptance into the BPOE, Arthur Riggs sought legal counsel and filed for copyright of the still unpatented BPOE meeting ritual. Although violent threats forced Riggs to relocate to Springfield, Ohio under an assumed name, the Black Elks endured under Howard and local chapters throughout the United States began to emerge.
Philadelphia’s chapter of the Black Elks is one such example, and Octavius Catto (1839-1871) proved a fitting namesake for the lodge. A prominent educator and activist during and after the Civil War, Catto is reflective of nineteenth century Philadelphia’s dynamic and vibrant black middle class. Born in South Carolina in 1839, Catto and his family settled in Philadelphia around 1850. He studied at the highly-regarded Institute for Colored Youth and eventually served as educator and assistant to the principal upon graduating in 1858. A staunch advocate of equal rights among men, Catto became increasingly involved in political action, both formal and informal.
During the Civil War, he and Frederick Douglass were instrumental in recruiting black volunteer regiments in and around Philadelphia, many of whom served in battle. In 1865 he staged a demonstration of civil disobedience against Philadelphia streetcar companies, which did not board black men and women. Having entered a streetcar, Catto quietly refused to get off when urged to by the conductor. When the conductor eventually chose to derail the car, Catto remained seated in silence well after the car had emptied. The event received national attention.  Threats of legal action were made against Catto, but he ultimately escaped reprimand.
In 1866, with his friend Jacob C. White, Catto formed the Pythians baseball club. The Pythians club served three functions: first, it provided a social recreational network for members of the black community, many of whom knew each other from their days at the Institute for Colored Youth; second, it served as a political stage to demonstrate African Americans’ love and mastery of an increasingly popular and distinctly American game; and third, it provided a means to negotiate acceptance into white administrative organizations such as the Pennsylvania Association of Amateur Base Ball Players (the Pythians were ultimately denied acceptance). As player-manger and skilled shortstop, Catto was well recognized on and off the field.
Catto further lobbied for black citizenship as a supporter of the Republican Party. He served as secretary in the Republican-organized Pennsylvania Equal Rights League. His political involvement brought his young and accomplished life to a sad, untimely end. In 1871, a year removed from Pennsylvania’s adoption of the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to black males, racial tensions ran high in the city of Philadelphia. Newly enfranchised black citizens, who almost exclusively supported Republican candidates, posed a significant threat to Democratic leaders, who relied heavily on white Irish support. On Election Day, October 10, 1871, Irish rioters sought to suppress the black vote, largely by violent means. Catto himself was confronted on the street and shot to death by Frank Kelly, likely an act of political murder motivated by Catto’s civil rights activism. Kelly stood trial in 1877 but escaped conviction. Catto’s death was mourned by the city, by white and black alike. His legacy lived on in the benevolent work of the Elks and black fraternal organizations throughout the region.

Historic Markers

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) has placed Historic Markers related to Quest for Freedom at the following Philadelphia locations:
David Bustill Bowser residence, 841 North 4th Street Philadelphia.  
Pennsylvania Abolition Society founded on this site in 1775, Front Street below Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. 
Pennsylvania Hall, Sixth and Haines Street, Philadelphia. 
Robert Purvis residence, 1601 Mt. Vernon Street, Philadelphia.
Stephen Smith, location of the Stephen Smith Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, 1050 Belmont Avenue, Philadelphia. 
Mother Bethel AME Church, site of event honoring David Paul Brown’s work, 419 South Sixth Street, Philadelphia. 
Octavius V. Catto residence, 812 South Street, Philadelphia.  
Institute for Colored Youth (where Catto taught), 915 Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia. 
Jane Johnson liberation site, Penn’s Landing near Walnut Street, pedestrian walkway and entrance to Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia. 
Moyamensing Prison, former site of prison at 1400 South Tenth Street and SW corner of Passyunk Avenue and Reed Street, Philadelphia. 
Outside of Philadelphia:
Major Martin Robinson Delany residence, 5PPG Place, 3rd Ave. and Market Streets, Pittsburgh, PA.