James Pennington

James Pennington

James Pennington was born a slave in Maryland. He worked as a stonemason and blacksmith but when he was about twenty he escaped to Pennsylvania. He was looked after by a Quaker who taught him to read and write.

In 1828 Pennington moved to New York where he worked as a blacksmith. He joined the campaign against slavery and during this period became friends with William Lloyd Garrison and Lewis Tappan. He continued with his education and worked as a schoolteacher in Newtown, Long Island, before becoming pastor of the Temple Street Congregational Church.

In 1839 Pennington joined with Lewis Tappan in organizing help for Joseph Cinque and his fellow Africans who had been arrested as a result of the Amistad Mutiny. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that the Africans had been kidnapped and had the right to use violence to escape from captivity.

Pennington's The Origin and History of the Coloured People was published in 1841. Two years later he represented Connecticut at the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

His autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith, was serialized in the magazine, the Afro-American in 1859. James Pennington continued to work for black civil rights until his death in 1870.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

My master once owned a beautiful girl about twenty-four. She had been raised in a family where her mother was a great favorite. She was her mother's darling child. Her master was a lawyer of eminent abilities and great fame, but owing to habits of intemperance, he failed in business, and my master purchased this girl for a nurse. After he had owned her about a year, one of his sons became attached to her, for no honorable purposes; a fact which was not only well-known among all the slaves, but which became a source of unhappiness to his mother and sisters.

The result was, that poor Rachel had to be sold to Georgia. Never shall I forget the heart-rending scene, when one day one of the men was ordered to get "the one-horse cart ready to go into town"; Rachel, with her few articles of clothing, was placed in it, and taken into the very town where her parents lived, and there sold to the traders before their weeping eyes. That same son who had degraded her, and who was the cause of her being sold, acted as salesman, and bill-of-saleman. While this cruel business was being transacted, my master stood aside, and the girl's father, a pious member and exhorter in the Methodist Church, a venerable grey-headed man, with his hat off, besought that he might be allowed to get someone in the place to purchase his child. But no: my master was invincible. His reply was, "She has offended in my family, and I can only restore confidence by sending her out of hearing." After lying in prison a short time, her new owner took her with others to the far South, where her parents heard no more of her.

(2) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

We had an overseer named Blackstone; he was an extremely cruel man to the working hands. He always carried a long

hickory whip - a kind of pole. He kept three or four of these, in order that he might not at any time be without one.

I once found one of these hickories lying in the yard, and supposing that he had thrown it away, I picked it up, and boy-like, was using it for a horse; he came along from the field, and seeing me with it, fell upon me with the one he then had in his hand, and flogged me most cruelly. From that, I lived in constant dread of that man; and he would show how much he delighted in cruelty by chasing me from my play with threats and imprecations. I have lain for hours in a wood, or behind a fence, to hide from his eye.

(3) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

The slaves are generally fed upon salt pork, herrings, and Indian corn. The manner of dealing it out to them is as follows: Each working man, on Monday morning, goes to the cellar of the master where the provisions are kept, and where the overseer takes his stand with someone to assist him, when he, with a pair of steelyards weighs out to every man the amount of three and a half pounds, to last him till the ensuing Monday - allowing him just half a pound per day. Once in a few weeks there is a change made, by which, instead of the three and a half pounds of pork, each man receives twelve herrings, allowing two a day. The only bread kind the slaves have is that made of Indian meal In some of the lower counties, the masters usually give their slaves the corn in the ear; and they have to grind it for themselves by night at hand mills. But my master had a quantity sent to the grist mill at a time to be ground into coarse meal, and kept it in a large chest in his cellar, where the woman who cooked for the boys could get it daily. This was baked in large loaves, called steel poun bread." Sometimes as a change it was made into Johnny Cake," and then at others into mush.

The slaves had no butter, coffee, tea, or sugar; occasionally they were allowed milk, but not statedly; the only exception to this statement was the "harvest provisions." In harvest, when cutting the grain, which lasted from two to three weeks in the heat of summer, they were allowed some fresh meat, rice, sugar, and coffee; and also their allowance of whiskey.

At the beginning of winter, each slave had one pair of coarse shoes and stockings, one pair of pantaloons, and a jacket. At the beginning of the summer, he had two pair of coarse linen pantaloons and two shirts.

Once in a number of years, each slave, or each man and his wife, had one coarse blanket and enough coarse linen for a "bed-tick." He never had any bedstead or other furniture kind. The men had no hats, waistcoats or handkerchiefs given them, or the women any bonnets. These they had to contrive for themselves. Each laboring man had a small "patch" of ground allowed him; from this he was expected to furnish himself and his boys hats, &c. These patches they had to work by night; from these, also, they had to raise their own provisions, as no potatoes, cabbage, &c., were allowed them from the plantation. Years ago the slaves were in the habit of raising broom-corn, and making brooms to supply the market in the towns; but now of later years great quantities of these and other articles, such as scrubbing brushes, wooden trays, mats, baskets, and straw hats, which the slaves made, are furnished by the shakers and other small manufacturers, from the free states of the north.

(4) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

Neither my master or any other master, within my acquaintance, made any provisions for the religious instruction of his slaves. They were not worked on the Sabbath. One of the "boys" was required to stay at home and "feed," that is, take care of the stock, every Sabbath; the rest went to see their friends. Those men whose families were on other plantations usually spent the Sabbath with them; some would lie about at home and rest themselves.

When it was pleasant weather my master would ride "into town" to church, but I never knew him to say a word to one of us about going to church, or about our obligations to God, or a future state. But there were a number of pious slaves in our neighborhood, and several of these my master owned; one of these was an exhorter. He was not connected with a religious body, but used to speak every Sabbath in some part of the neighborhood. When slaves died, their remains were usually consigned to the grave without any ceremony; but this old gentleman, wherever he heard of a slave having been buried in that way, would send notice from plantation to plantation, calling the slaves together at the grave on the Sabbath, where he'd sing, pray, and exhort. I have known him to go ten or fifteen miles voluntarily to attend these services. He could not read, and I never heard him refer to any Scripture, and state and discourse upon any fundamental doctrine of the gospel; but he knew a number of "spiritual songs by heart," of these he would give two lines at a time very exact, set and lead the tune himself; he would pray with great fervor, and his exhortations were amongst the most impressive I have heard.

(5) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

There is no one feature of slavery to which the mind recurs with more gloomy impressions, than to its disastrous influence upon the families of the masters, physically, pecuniarily, and mentally.

It seems to destroy families as by a powerful blight, large and opulent slaveholding families often vanish like a group of shadows at the third or fourth generation. This fact arrested my attention some years before I escaped from slavery, and of course before I had any enlightened views of the moral character of the system. As far back as I can recollect, indeed, it was a remark among slaves, that every generation of slaveholders are more and more inferior. There were several large and powerful families in our county, including that of my master, which affords to my mind a melancholy illustration of this remark. One of the wealthiest slaveholders in the county, was General R., a brother-in-law to my master. This man owned a large and highly valuable tract of land, called R.'s Manor. I do not know how many slaves he owned, but the number was large. He lived in a splendid mansion, and drove his coach and four. He was for some years a member of Congress. He had a numerous family of children.

The family showed no particular signs of decay until he had married a second time, and had considerably increased his number of children. It then became evident that his older children were not educated for active business, and were only destined to be a charge. Of sons (seven or eight), not one of them reached the eminence once occupied by the father. The only one that approached to it, was the eldest, who became an officer in the navy, and obtained the doubtful glory of being killed in the Mexican war.

General R. himself ran through his vast estate, died intemperate, and left a widow and large number of daughters, some minors, destitute, and none of his sons fitted for any employment but in the army and navy.

(6) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

I distinctly remember the two great difficulties that stood in the way of my flight: I had a father and mother whom I dearly loved, I had also six sisters and four brothers on the plantation. Will not the whole family be sold off as a disaffected family, as is generally the case when one of its members flies? But a still more trying question was, how can I expect to succeed, I have no knowledge of distance or direction - I know that Pennsylvania is a free state, but I know not where its soil begins, or where that of Maryland ends? When I considered the difficulties of the way - the reward that would be offered - the human bloodhounds that would be set upon my track - the weariness - the hunger - the gloomy thought, of not only losing all one's friends in one day, but of having to seek and to make new friends in a strange world. But, the man must act, or forever be a slave.

(7) James Pennington, letter to parents (1844)

About seventeen long years have now rolled away, since in the Providence of Almighty God, I left your embraces, and set out upon a daring adventure in search of freedom. Since that time, I have felt most severely the loss of the sun and moon and eleven stars from my social sky. Many, many a thick cloud of anguish has pressed my brow and sent deep down into my soul the bitter waters of sorrow in consequence. And you have doubtless had your troubles and anxious seasons also about your fugitive star.

I have learned that some of you have been sold, and again taken back by Colonel ———. How many of you are living and together, I cannot tell. My great grief is, lest you should have suffered this or some additional punishment on account of my Exodus.

I indulge the hope that it will afford you some consolation to know that your son and brother is yet alive. That God has dealt wonderfully and kindly with me in all my way. He has made me a Christian, and a Christian Minister, and thus I have drawn my support and comfort from that blessed Saviour, who came to preach good tidings unto the meek, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn. To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord that he might he glorified.