March 01, 2017
Figuring Out Who Was in the Room Where it Happened; Or, Doing African American History with Quaker Sources
6 min read
Today’s post is by Nicholas P. Wood, author of “A ‘Class of Citizens’: The Earliest Black Petitioners to Congress and Their Quaker Allies” in the January 2017 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.
About five years ago I examined a folder of petitions from black activists at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I was surprised to realize that one of the documents was actually an early draft of the famous petition to Congress signed by the Reverend Absalom Jones and seventy other people of color in December 1799. The rough draft was signed by two Quakers who I discovered were members of the Philadelphia Meeting for Sufferings. At the time I knew next to nothing about the unfortunately-acronymed PMS, but I have since concluded that it was the nation’s most important antislavery organization during the late eighteenth century. My ensuing research in the archives of the PMS and similar Quaker groups led me to a trove of documents connected to not only the Absalom Jones petition, but also a petition to Congress from four North Carolinian freedmen in 1797. Both petitions, which focused largely on the danger that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 posed to free people of color, are well known to specialists. Yet very little had been known about their creation. Because antislavery societies such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) made no reference to either petition, scholars had assumed that white abolitionists declined to aid the black activists, and they attributed their authorship to purely to Jones. It is now apparent that white PMS members were also “in the room where it happened” (to quote the Hamilton musical), and helped draft both petitions.
Quaker sources have allowed me to tell the story of the nation’s earliest black petitioners in greater detail than any previous historian, establishing connections between the former slaves and Quaker abolitionists in North Carolina and Philadelphia. Yet these sources also present challenges for writing about events that have traditionally been portrayed as examples of black autonomy. Throughout my various drafts of this article I struggled to keep the story focused on my primary subjects—the black petitioners, although the bulk of my sources were created by my secondary subjects—white Quaker abolitionists. Fortunately, although the Quaker sources do not include as many direct African Americans voices as I would have liked, they shed new light on black actions and experiences, as well as the scope of interracial abolitionism in the early republic.
Some of the details I uncovered helped me flesh out the personal narratives of some of the petitioners. Philadelphia Quakers preserved copies of the manumissions for hundreds of slaves, including the four petitioners from 1797, and these documents allow us to fill in dates and personal information missing from the petition. A combination of sources from the PAS, the PMS, and the North Carolina Standing Committee (the southern version of the PMS) enabled me to identify an unnamed “fellow black” mentioned in the 1797 petition, and reconstruct elements of his life. Moses Gordon, who had been freed by a Quaker in North Carolina, eventually chose suicide over reenslavement but he inspired the 1797 petition before his tragic death. A rough draft of the 1797 petition also reveals that Gordon’s former master had helped one of the petitioners escape North Carolina following a jailbreak.
Nonetheless, there remain many unknowns in the historical records, resulting from the imbalance of Quaker and African American sources. The surviving records of black churches from the era have allowed me to establish likely connections and networks of influence, but provide few details beyond marriages, baptisms, and fundraising. A handful of letters from black petitioners such as Cato Collins and Quomony Clarkson to PMS members indicate an easy familiarity based on frequent face-to-face interactions. But unlike the well documented meetings of the PMS and PAS, I know frustratingly little about the nature of these informal exchanges and collaboration. In sum, when it comes to the petitions’ creation, we now know more about who was in the room where it happened, but we still don’t know exactly how it happened.