Sunday marks the 185th anniversary of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS), founded December 9, 1833.
In its pursuit of abolition, the PFASS assisted Blacks by circulating abolition petitions, holding public meetings, raising funds, providing food, clothing, and shelter, paying for education, and serving as conductors on the Underground Railroad.
The PFASS was affiliated with but not an official part of the American Anti-Slavery Society because women were not permitted to join that organization.
Among the 42 charter members of the PFASS, ten were Black. They were Charlotte Forten, her three daughters Margaretta Forten, Sarah Louise Forten, and Harriet D. Purvis, along with Margaret Bowser, Grace Bustill Douglass, Sarah McCrummel, Lydia White, Mary Woods, and Amy Hester “Hetty” Reckless. Following those 42 charter members, 18 other women quickly joined.
Although the ten sistahs mentioned above have remarkably impressive backgrounds, Reckless is exceptionally noteworthy in that not only was she formerly enslaved, she also set up a successful safe house on Rodman Street as a stop on the Underground Railroad. In addition, she promoted academic schooling and vocational training for enslaved Blacks. She also established a Black women’s shelter for those in need.
As noted by Gayle T. Tate in Unknown Tongues: Black Women’s Political Activism in the Antebellum Era 1830-1860, Reckless “persuaded... [PFASS] members to contribute to community projects and to make donations... to provide fugitives with room and board, clothing, medical assistance, employment, financial aid, and advice concerning their legal rights.” All of this was sought by her with the ultimate goal of putting Blacks in a “do for self” position.
The PFASS was one of the few integrated women’s abolitionist groups in America. It included such prominent white activists as Lucretia Mott and Angelina Grimke. Despite these and other woke white sistahs, Janice Sumler-Lewis in “The Forten-Purvis Women of Philadelphia and the American Anti-Slavery Crusade” notes that it was the Black members- primarily the Fortens- who got the organization to pursue a more militant anti-slavery approach.
Included among the previously mentioned petitions was one in 1836 to the U.S. Congress demanding outright emancipation throughout the entire country. More than 3,300 Philadelphia women signed it. Other petitions were directed to both the Pennsylvania state legislature and Congress demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the banning of interstate “slave” trading, and the requirement of jury trials for suspected runaway “slaves.”
And there were petitions circulated in the city calling for residents to boycott all items produced by “slave” labor.
Because abolition was the PFASS’s founding goal, there was some disagreement, even friction, between many of its white members and Black members.
While the whites, for the most part, wanted to focus on changing the laws, the Blacks, for the most part, wanted to change those laws and break those laws, such as by conspiring with fugitive “slaves” to avoid capture regardless of local, state, and federal laws criminalizing such actions. In other words, they took a “by any means necessary”- i.e., legal and illegal- stance in opposing slavery. As author Tate points out, those Black members engaged in “pragmatic abolitionism” that incorporated subversive strategies they considered not only helpful but essential as well.
There is a state historical marker at Fifth and Arch Streets that reads, “Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Organized in 1833 by Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, this society, headquartered here, originally consisted of sixty women who sought to end slavery. After the Civil War, the society supported the cause of the freed ‘slaves.’”
It was at that very site- where historic Pennsylvania Hall was located- that the Second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was held. And it was during that convention on May 17, 1838 that pro-slavery thugs burned the entire hall to the ground.
But that didn’t deter these courageous Black and white Philly sistahs. They fought on for more than 30 years afterward and claimed historic victories. In fact, as they wrote in the records of their final meeting on March 21, 1870, “Whereas, the object for which this Association was organized is thus accomplished, therefore resolved, that the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society... rejoicing in the victory which has concluded the long conflict between slavery and freedom in America, does hereby disband.”
They helped fight the good fight for the 13th Amendment to end slavery and won in 1865. They helped fight the good fight for the 14th Amendment to grant citizenship to Blacks and won in 1868. They helped fight the good fight for the 15th Amendment to allow Black men to vote and won in 1870, just 18 days before they disbanded.
Well done, relentless warrior queens. Very well done!