An Address Delivered at the Centennial Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery
An 1875 address delivered by African American abolitionist and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was an African American abolitionist, writer, educator, feminist, and temperance organizer. For further on her life, see Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994) and Frances Smith Foster’s introduction to A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader (New York: Feminist Press, 1990) 3-40.
The Society, whose history was commemorated on this occasion, was originally organized in 1775 as the Pennsylvania Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. It was the first abolitionist society in the world. In 1784 it was re-organized as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. During its early years, leading figures such as Anthony Benezet, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Gallatin, and Benjamin Rush were all associated with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. By the late 1830s the Society was over-shadowed by the new wave of Garrisonian abolitionism but remained active and reasonably well-financed. When Harper addressed the Society’s centennial anniversary celebrations in 1875, the group was largely a commemorative organization with some residual educational roles. For further information, see the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s journal Legacies 6 (2005) 2.
Harper’s speech begins her address to the Society by asserting that democracy and social equality are not only national issues, but a question for African Americans regarding “what are we going to do for ourselves?” (101-102) Since “the white race has yet work to do in making practical the political axiom of equal rights” (102), African Americans would of necessity develop their own communities and themselves. She sees definite progress given that “the colored man has exchanged the fetters on his wrist for the ballot in his hand” (102), but points to lynching as a new means of repression directed against blacks. Harper finds the United States lacking in both justice and humanity (104). She calls for moral warfare in order to achieve social progress and desires to “throw into the South all the healthful reconstructing influences we can command.” (104) The speech harbors a sense of discouragement with Reconstruction policies – she refers to “apparent failure” (106) – and she invokes Christian faith against such disappointment.
Source: Alice Dunbar-Nelson [ed.], Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (New York: Bookery Publishing Co., 1914) 101-106.