Home to the first abolition society, Pennsylvania is considered progressive in its movement towards emancipation. The 1780 "Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery" was the first of its kind, and provided a model followed by many Northern states. Still, Pennsylvania's progressive strides were slow, and slavery did not fully end in the state until 1850.

Slavery existed legally throughout Pennsylvania from its founding in 1682 through the mid-19th-century. As a British trading port in the 17th and 18th centuries, Philadelphia was a primary site for the import of enslaved people into the British Colonies. During the colonial era, Pennsylvania began instituting laws limiting the "peculiar institution" and restricting the slave trade.

By the American Revolution, slavery had decreased in importance as a labor source in Pennsylvania, and many populations within the state were morally opposed to the practice. By 1767, Pennsylvania banned slave imports. However, abolition was a gradual process.

In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state in the country to pass an Abolition Act. This law ended slavery through gradual emancipation.

The existing 6,000 enslaved people in Pennsylvania remained enslaved, and their registered children would be enslaved until their 28th birthday.

The law freed few slaves immediately. Although Pennsylvanians could no longer legally import slaves, they could buy and sell those who had been registered after 1780.

This 1785 document is an exemplification of a sale that took place in Lancaster County between William Porter and Andrew Porter. William is selling Andrew his "movable estate," which includes 13 enslaved people as well as farm animals and household furniture.

The 1780 Act was amended in 1788, closing some loopholes previously left open by the original act. The Amendment prohibited slaveholders from transporting a pregnant enslaved woman out-of-state so her child would be born enslaved; and from separating husbands from wives, and children from parents.

It also required Pennsylvania slaveholders to register the birth of a child to an enslaved mother within 6 months of the child's birth.

The 1780 Act required slaveholders to annually register their slaves. The penalty for noncompliance was manumission for the enslaved.

These "Slave Registers" provide important demographic and genealogical information for enslaved people living in Pennsylvania from 1780 onward.

In addition to registering enslaved adults, the 1788 amendment required slaveholders to register children born to enslaved women after the year 1780. These children were enslaved only until their 28th birthdays, at which point they became free persons.

After 1788, "Slave Returns," testimonies of slaveholders to enslaved children born after 1780, provide insight into the enslaved people living and working in Lancaster County, including the names of enslaved women and the ages of their children.

This "Slave Return" is from Solomon Etting, a kosher butcher of Jewish faith living in Lancaster County. Born in 1764, Solomon was 24 years old in 1788. He is registering Margaret, age 3, and Henry, age 6 months, who are children of Dinah and will be "in his possession" until the children are 28.

After Solomon's wife Rachel died in 1790, he moved to Baltimore and became a prominent politician. The fate of Dinah, Margaret, and Henry remains unknown, but the 1788 amendment should have prevented Solomon from taking them to Maryland for more than 6 months.

This "Slave Return" was filed by attorney Jasper Yeates on behalf of his brother-in-law Peter Grubb, who died in 1786. Before his death, Grubb had registered enslaved women Nance and Amy. Due to the strengthening of the act in 1788, Yeates is reporting their enslaved children born after 1780: Hannah (four) and Amy (one), children of Nance, and Fanny (six), child of Amy.

Peter Grubb was a second-generation member of the Grubb Family Iron Dynasty, which made significant contributions to the Revolutionary War effort and was a highly profitable enterprise. Peter's brother Curtis attempted to put him out of business to take over the full iron holdings of the company, and in 1786 Peter became distraught and took his own life.

Pennsylvania was home to the first American abolition society, first organized in 1775 and re-organized in 1784 as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.

This society successfully petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to amend the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. They completed a 2,000-signature petition and launched lobbying efforts with Benjamin Franklin at the helm.

After the 1788 amendment, the society promoted Pennsylvania's gradual abolition acts as a model that other states could follow. In this letter to the Delaware Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Pennsylvania Society offers to send printed copies of the gradual abolition acts and requests that the Delaware Society encourage their governor to follow suit.

Although slavery gradually declined in Pennsylvania due to the 1780 Act, the state continued to tolerate the institution for decades, and many Pennsylvania cities enacted legislation that restricted and oppressed free people of color.

Think not when the wailing winds of autumn / Drive the Shimmering leaflets from the tree / Think not all is over: spring returneth. / Birds & leaves, & blossoms thou shalt see / Think not when thy heart is waste & dreary / When thy cherished hopes lie chill & dere [sic] / Think not all is over: God still liveth / He will wipe away the every tear.

H B Stowe

Credits: Story

Visit to learn more about abolition in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and to schedule a time to view our African American Records Collection.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google