This week’s excerpt from On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Journey Across America comes from Ch. 6, Meeting the Black Abolitionists and brings us to Philadelphia.
…Grateful for the tree canopy on the unusually warm day, Miles hugged the shade as much as he could. He had waited until later in the morning to avoid rush hour, but traffic congestion and noise hadn’t abated. Sankofa remained stalwart; his focus unswerving. Miles walked Sankofa slowly as he navigated the narrow streets.
Being atop a horse, sitting higher than pedestrians and car windows, Miles could peer into windows of offices and apartments, capturing bits of life otherwise hidden…
…Catching glimpses of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, symbols of the American Revolution, Miles wondered how many tourists realize that just steps away reminders of the city’s embrace of slavery echo through the streets. In Washington Square, once called “Congo Square,” slave auctions separated Africans from loved ones, sending them into servitude. As the nation’s capital, from 1790-1800, Philadelphia hosted George Washington’s presidency. A known slaveholder, Washington brought his slaves to Philadelphia, circumventing the law that granted slaves freedom after a six- month residency by moving his slaves back to Virginia.
As he rode, Miles recalled his reading about the black abolitionists, often former slaves who having obtained their own freedom championed abolition for others. The red brick row houses, many now offices, were homes for these advocates. Some served as stations on the Underground Railroad, some were places of worship and education. Miles imagined the debates that occurred within these walls.
Absalom Jones, born 1746 into slavery, taught himself to read from books he bought by saving pennies given to him from visitors to his master’s house. Sold at 16 and separated from his family, Jones worked as a clerk in his owner’s store by day but was allowed to attend an all-black school at night. He bought his and his wife’s freedom in 1784. In 1791 he founded The African Church, becoming the first ordained priest of African descent in the United States.
Jones and Richard Allen, another cleric, led the 1799 campaign to abolish slavery before the Pennsylvania State Legislature, followed the next year with another petition to the United States Congress. In 1816, Allen became the first bishop of the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church. The two friends continued their fight against injustice by condemning a year later, the formation of the American Colonization Society, which encouraged freed slaves to return to Africa.
Allen, also born a slave in 1760, purchased his freedom and became an itinerant preacher, addressing blacks and whites throughout several states while working as a wagon driver and shoemaker to earn money to support himself.
Unlike Jones and Allen, James Forten and Robert Purvis were born free. Forten, born in 1766 in Philadelphia, left school after his father’s death and worked with a grocer before joining the Continental Navy at age 15. In 1786, he returned to Philadelphia and apprenticed with a sail-maker. Learning quickly to cut and sew, he became foreman, and eventually bought the company when the owner retired. Forten employed both black and white laborers and applied his financial success toward the abolition of slavery, what he considered one of his most important responsibilities as a prominent free black man in the city. ..
…Born in 1810, in Charleston, South Carolina, a son of wealthy cotton broker and a free black woman, Robert Purvis’s opposition to slavery began at a young age. When nine, his family moved to Philadelphia where Purvis attended the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s Clarkson School. He married Harriet Forten, James Forten’s daughter, and his financial stability allowed him to devote himself entirely to antislavery. He sheltered runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad; his home became known as the Purvis “safe house.”
Miles tried to put himself in the role of an abolitionist. Would he have been able to convince a slave to flee? Would he have risked his life and those of others to end slavery?…
On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America combines Dean’s memoir- his dreams of becoming a cowboy, his years as a high school and college athlete, and his cross-country journey, with the historical figures, many unsung, he visited as he traveled.
It’s non-fiction and a perfect book for book group reading or to share with middle school and high school students or to read aloud to younger children. I wrote an Educators’ Guide that includes cross-disciplinary activities in writing, art, drama, geography, math and a character education platform, “The Horseman’s Creed.”