One Race, The Human Race
By Caroline Niesley
“Free Man of Color”, Revolutionary War Veteran & POW, Prominent Philadelphia Sailmaker & Rigger Employed 40 White and Black Persons, Author and Abolitionist, Inventor – Rescued 12 Persons from Drowning.
“Free man of color”, Abolitionist, Author, Public Speaker, Businessman, Gentleman Farmer, Member of the Vigilante Committee of the Underground Railroad
Concerning the overlooked deaths of Black Americans in the violent aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody. Attorney General Bill Barr told Mark Levin, “I believe ALL black lives matter.” Exactly.
CNN reported 100 people died violently as they and other networks increased ratings with inflammatory reporting of White police and Black suspects producing outrage. In the ensuing violence Black and White children were murdered, some intentionally, some accidentally.
Near the historic Frederick Douglass house, Cedar Hill in DC, an 11 year old killed by a stray bullet to his head fired by one of 5 arguing young men who left the scene in a sedan. The child and the young men were Black. A journalist asked what Douglass would have said.
What would Mr. Douglas say of our affluent, cell phone wielding society, where well shod Marxists trash poor urban neighborhoods with aplomb as Democratic politicians praise them from behind Covid masks in the narrative of fighting racism covering their party's history before a contentious election. A Black Republican, from the era of Douglass, would be furious.
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass, a Christian and former slave wrote of his experience with righteous anger. After he’d achieved fame as a speaker, the daughter of his former owner wrote Douglass.
Her father was on his deathbed and wanted to speak with him. Douglass went. The two men reconciled. Douglass was criticized for being merciful. He’d seen what a lack of mercy brings.
245 years of slavery plus one hundred years of disenfranchisement and segregation made a cancer in the Republic which won’t stay in remission. Oceans of blood from millions who died in slavery and the war fought against it cannot cleanse us of this evil inflammatory division.
Yet everyone of good will who heard Dr. King speak of his “dream” believed a colorblind society not only possible but around the corner. What happened?
Booker T. Washington, whose memoir Out of Slavery is not to be missed, eloquently said, “There is a certain class of race problem-solvers who don't want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out, they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public."
One example of Washington’s claim occurred at the funeral of civil rights activist, John Lewis. Former President Obama raised applause and approbation at the solemn event by projecting the evils of his own Democratic Party, invoking ghosts of Bull Connor and George Wallace with the zeitgeist of Jim Crow, upon the people of the Republican Party. What verbal ledgerdemain.
What he did not say was the Republican Party was responsible for the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution finally granting suffrage to black Americans. These laws were ignored in the Democrat controlled South. Dixiecrat poll taxes, twenty page exams and the Klan made voting impossible for Black Americans for 100 years in the South.
A 14 hour filibuster by Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, a former Klansman for whom Barack Obama gave a public eulogy fit for a king, was staged to stop the Civil Rights Act. After, Republican Senator Everett Dirksen took the floor quoting Victor Hugo, “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come,….” Time magazine, in their June 19, 1964 issue stated, “it is Dirksen’s bill (The Civil Rights Act of 1964), bearing his handiwork more than anyone else’s.” No wonder no one has ever heard of Dirksen.
Politics are as complicated as human beings, take Pennsylvania. The State Constitution of 1770 read, “All freedmen having a sufficient common interest with an attachment to the community have a right to elect officers,….” Which meant any man with property could vote by law in PA. 67 years later, in 1837, there was a Convention to amend and insert the word “white” before the word “freedmen”! There were a good number of nays but not enough. In protest of this decision which had disenfranchised him, Robert Purvis wrote in 1838, “there is but one race, the human race.”
Having the legal right to vote did not mean you could. Revolutionary war veteran, James Forten, a “free man of color” owned a business which could rig a ship to sail around Cape Horn. After the war, James Forten learned sail making in London, became foreman for a sailmaker in Philadelphia then bought the business with 40 Black and White employees. Forten refused to rig slave ships even writing owners to state slavery was inhumane!
Forten, a contemporary of Jefferson, wrote on Jefferson’s words, how it is self-evident all men are created equal and how we are all made in “GOD's” image. He used all caps for “GOD”.
Mr. Forten was proud of an award he received which hung on the wall of his home on the three hundred block of Lombard Street for saving the lives of 12 persons from drowning. He insisted his employees: attend church, drink no alcohol and vote with the business in mind.
Mr. Forten, one of the wealthiest gentlemen in Philadelphia, Black or White, was prevented from voting by threats. His son survived an attack by white ruffians. So Forten asked his white workmen to vote for him and so they did.
When Forten died on March 4, 1842 Philadelphia saw the largest funeral cortege in memory. Over a thousand Black persons plus hundreds of White persons attended to honor him. August 1st, 1842 The Lombard Street Riot took place.
The political situation was as densely layered as today. Prior to the riot there was back and forth vandalism among ethnic groups. Active abolitionists were staunch Protestants and Masons intolerant of Catholics and foreigners. Some were Ulster men or the original Bad Orange men. They voted Whig, Liberty and Free Soil Parties. After the Whig party self imploded; Whigs, Liberty and Free Soilers got behind Lincoln's new radical Republican Party. Free men of color lived on the edge of a knife being unable to vote and at the mercy of those in office.
Partisan newspapers pitted Irish Catholic immigrants against Whig Protestant Abolitionists inciting fear unskilled jobs would not go to foreigners. Historian Thomas Sowell said free Black Americans were preferred over Irish immigrants. Blacks were American born and Protestant. Irish Catholics fell in with the pro slavery Democratic-Republican Party, the precursor of today’s Democratic Party.
There was anti-Catholic scorn. Robert Purvis called Democrat Chief Justice Taney who decided the Dred Scott decision, "that old Jesuit".
This is the spooky era of the Know Nothings a "Nativist" American born, pro slavery, secret society party. The Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia has no stained glass windows at street level due to them. They hated Irish and German immigrants because they hated Catholics using terror and violence to prevent them from voting!
Know Nothings carried awls to stab with. If they saw a German coming to vote they'd put his head in a bucket of pig's blood in front of the polling place. A prophecy of the Klan to come. The couping era.
Couping meant kidnapping men, getting them drunk in a safe house, dressing them in each other’s clothes and forcing them to vote early and often for the Know Nothing Party. There is evidence Edgar Allan Poe died of trauma and alcohol poisoning after being couped by Know Nothings in Baltimore in 1849.
Lincoln said it best, “I am not a Know-Nothing — that is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’”
To add to the perfect storm of prejudice and partisan politics there came an economic collapse. On August 1st 1842, between 5th and 8th and Lombard Street a parade of a thousand free people of color celebrated West Indian Independence Day alongside a Quaker Temperance march. Irish Catholic immigrants had a violent encounter with the Black marchers, beating them and looting Black homes.
The Second African Presbyterian Church and Smith's Hall Abolitionist's meeting house were burned. The riot lasts three days. Firemen were attacked. Constables and firemen stood down.
The rioters head to 9th and Lombard to the fashionable three story home of the son in law of the late James Forten, the wealthy, notorious abolitionist, Robert Purvis. The town house had a secret trap door under the children's playroom where escaped slaves hid.
Unbeknownst to the rioters, Purvis spoke on behalf of an Irish Free State while visiting England. His wife, their young children and servants are upstairs. Purvis expecting the worst sat on the stairs facing the front door armed.
Meanwhile, a Catholic priest, Fr. Patrick Moriarty rebukes the Catholics in the mob to deserved shame. The mob dispersed. If the mob had broken down the door, they would have been surprised to see the free man of color was White.
If you look up Robert Purvis, you will see a Daguerreotype of a man worthy of a Bronte novel and a member of a singular league of truly extraordinary gentlemen, The Underground Railroad. Purvis was the image of privilege; handsome, outspoken, rich, white and one eighth black. He was proud of his Black, Jewish and English heritage. He was proud of his interracial family. He told all: friend, foe, even the administration of Andrew Jackson when he registered for the first passport for a free man of color. And he got his passport too.
William, his father, wanted to take his family back to England but died when Purvis was 16. One year later Purvis spoke publicly on Abolition, it became his passion. Harriet Forten and “Rob”, childhood sweethearts, were married at twenty by a White Episcopalian Bishop in the home of the bride's parents James & Charlotte Vandine Forten.
Rob’s looks were an asset in service of the Vigilante Committee the active arm of the Underground Railroad in Southeastern Pennsylvania as he could enter any courtroom and confront any man. He was an impetuous man of action, not averse to using a buggy whip on a man with a warrant at the Doylestown Courthouse. Purvis’s lawyer stalled a hearing for a captured fugitive slave in his care. The judge said get another warrant.
Purvis hurried the young man to his buggy. A man ran out after them waiving the new warrant. Purvis whipped the man, then the horse and off they flew. The young man and his three brothers all were eventually freed.
William Still, a free man of color, was known later as the President of the Underground Railroad. He, unlike Purvis, kept his records of slave rescues hidden in a Quaker attic. Purvis destroyed his in the fear the fugitives could be identified and sent back into slavery. Still’s house is gone but his marble front step remains like a relic. O the people who crossed his threshold.
They did not cross into the South as Harriet Tubman did. That took supernatural grace. Most slaves who made it to the Pennsylvania border knew Philadelphia as a sanctuary, a city of brotherly love, sometimes.
The Fugitive Slave Act however made it a crime to help or not report an escaped slave. This is where the Vigilante Committee came in. They hid slaves until they could get them to New England or Canada. They met their needs and transportation.
William Stills, would take fugitives personally in a buggy to Canada. The members were all businessmen who could hang a sign on their door as they often had to leave town without notice.
Harriet Tubman however went in and out of slave territory with a gun in her coat for dogs, irate slave owners and any slave who wanted to go back. Never caught, as a poorly dressed slave woman, Harriet Tubman was as overlooked as a book in a library.
The story of William Still and William Passmore and five Black stevedores rescuing sanctuary seeking slave Jane Johnson and her two little boys from her naive planter owner caused a sensation! And without any violence. Her owner did not understand the law in Pennsylvania granted slaves asylum if they asked and she did.
Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass visited William Passmore in prison. As the only white man present, he was held responsible. Jane, now a free woman, gave testimony at the trial and Passmore was freed. Even the newspapers rejoiced.
Read these true stories. They are better than any fiction. Why no films? I guess it doesn’t fit their narrative. In reality all races came together. Or as Robert Purvis famously said “there is but one race, the human race.”
Abolitionists used; wiles, Law, their homes, family and friends, their money and faith in God to do so. As Thomas Garrett, a White Quaker friend of Tubman, said after being fined into penury for the crime of helping slaves, “Judge thou hast left me not a dollar, but I wish to say to thee and to all in this courtroom that if anyone knows a fugitive who wants shelter and a friend, send him to Thomas Garrett and he will befriend him.”
Abolitionists were considered lunatics and religious fanatics. The precursors of Lincoln's Republicans. The only people of our time comparable would be pro-life, anti-abortion activists, the brave ones who tell women there is an option before they enter the abortion clinic.
Many pro-lifers as the abolitionists have suffered illegal imprisonment and physical injury for bravely taking a very unpopular view while others feel abortion is unfortunate but the law.
Many think they would be on the abolitionist side if they had lived during slavery. Would people who are afraid now of posting a pro-life opinion on social media risk their reputations and lives as the conductors of the Underground Railroad did? You think?
Cardinal Newman said, "To be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant". Indeed, after researching the politics of slavery I can say, "To be deep in American History, is to cease to be Democrat".