Anti-Slavery in North America
Quakers in Germantown, now a suburb of Philadelphia, made the first recorded protest against slavery in 1688. Many Quakers, especially in the southern colonies, owned slaves at this time. William Penn himself owned slaves during his four years in Pennsylvania (1682-4 and 1696-8), though they were later freed and he treated them well. In 1763 Robert King of Philadelphia, a prominent Quaker merchant in the West Indies, purchased Olaudah Equiano, the famous black Abolitionist, though he sold him his freedom three years later.
For much of the eighteenth century, the focus was on eliminating slavery within the Quaker community. This was eventually achieved in 1774. Many individuals helped to change opinion. Benjamin Lay (1677-1759) was a campaigner who believed in eye-catching approaches. On one occasion he stood barefoot in the snow outside a Quaker Meeting to show the conditions in which many slaves were living. .John Woolman (1720-1772) wrote ‘Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes’ in which he argued that slavery was harmful to both slaves and slave owners. Anthony Benezet (1713-84), a great Quaker educator, wrote several books on slavery and conditions in Africa. Many Quakers freed their own slaves, and some bought slaves from others, in order to free them. By 1758 opinion amongst Quakers had moved to a point where a systematic programme of visits to the remaining Quaker slave-owners was agreed, in an endeavour to persuade them to free their slaves. Eventually, in 1774, Quakers who still owned slaves were expelled from the Society of Friends.
Once Quakers had eliminated slavery from their own communities, they turned their attention to eradicating slavery in society as a whole. Two strands of activity developed. One was a campaign to win hearts and minds. The other was supporting escaping slaves, and helping them and freedmen/women to build new lives.
Campaigning took many forms. The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1775, in Philadelphia. Revealingly, women were excluded from the Society’s decision-making: women were not entirely equal, even among Quakers. After Lucretia Mott was barred as a woman from speaking at the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention, she founded the Pennsylvania Female Anti-Slavery Society. She often spoke publicly, with considerable eloquence. As the US expanded westwards, other centres of activity emerged, for example in Indiana.
Much was published. The Pennsylvania Freeman was an important outlet especially when John Greenleaf Whittier the well-known Quaker poet, became its editor in 1838. He campaigned extensively through its pages and his other writings. William Savery petitioned Congress to abolish slavery in 1783.
‘Free Produce’ committees grew up, with much Quaker input, boycotting all slave-produced goods. Along with their British counterparts, Quakers at this time developed many of the approaches to campaigning that are still in use today, including boycotts.
Supporting slaves and former slaves also took many forms. The Underground Railroad was a set of routes and safe houses whereby escaping slaves could make their way from the slave-owning South to the emancipated North. Many Quakers were active in this, notably Levi Coffin, a merchant in Cincinnati, Indiana and Thomas Garrett. They were breaking the law, and taking great risks. Levi became known as the President of the Railroad, and it is estimated he helped about 2000 runaways to freedom. He and his wife are the basis of two characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was an early example of direct action or civil disobedience. Schools were set up for children, and attempts were made to find safe places for former slaves to settle.
Nevertheless slavery amongst non-Quakers continued, in parts of the US, until 1865. It was central to the Civil War (1861-5), the outcome of which was that slavery was finally abolished throughout the Union.
Nevertheless, slavery persists in modern forms, such as forced labour, in many parts of the world. Many North American Quakers are involved in activities concerned with abolishing these modern forms of slavery. There are strong links with Anti-Slavery International (ASI), arguably the oldest human rights organization in the world, founded as the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1839. In 2000, Quaker academic Kevin Bales, an expert on modern forms of slavery, co-founded an American organization called Free the Slaves, which is affiliated with ASI.