1713 - 1784
Antoine Bénézet was the second of thirteen children born into a wealthy Huguenot family in St. Quentin in France. He was two when his family fled to Rotterdam to escape religious persecution in France. Soon they came to London, where they changed their French names to English ones. Anthony was probably educated at the Friends School in Wandsworth.
The family emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1731. He became a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and in1736 he married a Philadelphia Quaker minister, Joyce Marriot. He tried various forms of employment, including selling commodities with his brothers, but in 1739 he found his true vocation was to be an educator.
He started teaching at Germantown, Pennsylvania and later at the Quaker school in Philadelphia. He wrote several primers and a book stressing the importance of a well-rounded education. His greatest achievement as an educator was with those who had no access to traditional schools. In 1750 he started to offer evening classes to black people, mostly in his own home. In 1754 he started the first Philadelphia secondary school for girls. He always wanted to do the best for his students and to make the school as inclusive as possible. He devised a special programme for a deaf and dumb girl at the school so that she could participate fully in school life. In 1770 he convinced Quakers to build the first free day school for African Americans.
He was also an abolitionist and challenged the assertion of black inferiority. At this time many people, including many Quakers, did not regard black and white people as equal. Bénézet testified to his experience of the innate equality of all people. He wrote an epistle seeking to eradicate slave owning amongst Quakers as he believed it to be inconsistent with Christianity and common justice. He wrote to London Yearly Meeting asking them to denounce slavery and also to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III of England, in 1783 asking her to consider the plight of those who were enslaved and warning of the Divine displeasure that would occur to a nation that promoted such injustice.
In his ‘Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes’, the first publication to use stories of slave traders and other eyewitnesses, he points out that if buyers did not demand slaves, the supply would end. "Without purchasers," he argued, "there would be no trade; and consequently every purchaser as he encourages the trade, becomes partaker in the guilt of it". His writings and work reached beyond America to the wider world. His anti-slavery tracts were circulated in America, England and Europe. Bénézet was well known in abolitionist circles and counted among his contacts Benjamin Franklin, John Wesley, and John and Samuel Fothergill. A ’Short Account of that Part of Africa Inhabited by the Negroes’ published in 1762 was translated into French and German. Anglican abolitionist Granville Sharp used this work in his first legal battle against slavery in 1767. Thomas Clarkson was greatly influenced to begin his fight against slavery by another of Bénézet’s books ‘Some Historical Account of Guinea’ published in 1772. The same book was used by John Wesley as the first half of his own anti-slavery tract of 1774. He was able to secure some emancipation of slaves in Pennsylvania.
Bénézet also undertook one of the earliest relief initiatives, when he set up arrangements for helping 500 refugees from Nova Scotia, fleeing the British-French colonial war of 1713. He obtained government grants and had houses built for them in Philadelphia. He helped them with education and finding work. He endured much criticism from fellow Quakers especially when the refugees refused offers to help them resettle elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Some of the refugees added to his difficulties, by suspecting him of ulterior motives such as selling them into slavery. Despite all this, he persisted, and helped many.
He was interested in many social issues and wrote about temperance, pacifism and Native American reform. Upon his death in 1784 he willed his estate to support the education of African and Native American people. People of many races and creeds including, a large number of black people, were amongst the mourners at his funeral.