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Biography of James W. C. Pennington

Just a little beyond the line separating Maryland from the State of Pennsylvania, in Adams County of the Keystone commonwealth lived William and Phebe Wright, good and true members of the Society of Friends. In the fall of the year 1828, as Phebe Wright, surrounded by her little children came out upon the back porch of her home, in the performance of some domestic task, she saw standing before her in the shade of the early November morn, a colored man without hat, shoes or coat. Tile stranger inquired whether Mr. Wright lived there, and, receiving an affirmative answer, he said that he wanted work. The good woman took in the situation at a glance. She invited him into the house to warm, and wait the arrival of Mr. Wright. He was shivering with cold and fright. When Mr. Wright had arrived the fugitive told his story. He came from Hagerstown, Md., where he had been taught the blacksmith's trade. In following this business, it was his duty to keep an account of all the work done by him, which record he showed to his master at the end of each week.

 Knowing no written character but the figure ''5,'' he kept this account by means of a curious system of hieroglyphics in which straight marks meant horse slices put on circles, cart-wheels fixed, etc. One day he chanced to see his master's book, and he noticed that wherever 5 and 1 were added, the figure 6 followed. He practiced this until it was perfectly familiar to him and, ever afterwards used it in keeping his accounts. One day as his master was inspecting his books he noticed the new character, and compelled Pennington to tell how he had learned it. The master flew into a rage, and said: "I'll teach you how to be learning new figures, and picking up a horse shoe threw it at him, but, fortunately, for the chattel, missed him. So genuine was the moral development in the nature of Pennington, that, notwithstanding his thirst for freedom, he considered it his duty to remain with his master until he became one and twenty years of age, so as to repay, by his labor, the trouble and expense of the master in rearing him.

But, the night of the 21st anniversary of his birth was, indeed, a memorable occasion, for it was that same night that he turned his face towards the North star in a desperate effort to reach a land of freedom. So, on that very evening he started out on his pilgrimage for liberty. Upon arriving at Reisterstown, about twenty-five miles from Baltimore, and about thirty-five miles from Mr. Wright's home, he was arrested, and placed in a barroom, connected with the tavern, in the care of the landlady, to wait until his captors had finished their supper. The landlady, engaged in getting, supper, set him to watch the cakes that were baking. As she was passing back and forth, he ostentatiously removed his hat, coat, and shoes. Having done this, he remarked to her, "I'll step out a moment." This he did, she sending a boy to watch him. When the boy came out, he suddenly appeared very sick, and called hastily for water. The boy ran in to get it. Now was the break for liberty or death. Now was his opportunity. Jumping the fence he ran to a clump of trees which occupied low ground behind the house, and concealing himself in it for a moment, ran, and continued to run, he knew not wither, until he found himself at the tollgate near Petersburg, in Adam's County. Before this he had kept in the fields and forests, but now found himself compelled to come out upon the road. The tollgate keeper, seeing at once that he was a fugitive, said to him, "I guess you don't know the road." "I guess I can find it myself" was the reply. ''Let me show you," said the man. "You may, if you please," replied the fugitive. Taking him out behind his dwelling, he pointed across the fields to a new brick farm-house, and said, "Go there, and inquire for Mr. Wright." The slave thanked him, and did as he was directed. Here was a man hardly out of the house of bondage who was destined to show forth in himself the great possibilities of a whole race of people denied the opportunity of manifesting the wonders of God in-wrought in them.

 Pennington only remained with William Wright until the following April, but, during this period, short as it was, in addition to his daily labors on the farm, he learned to read, write and cipher, as far as the single rule of three, as it was then called, or simple proportion. During his stay here, nothing could exceed his gratitude to the whole family. He learned, also, how to graft trees, and thus rendered great assistance to Mr. Wright in his business. When working in the kitchen, during the winter, he would never permit Mrs. Wright to perform any hard labor; he always scrubbed the floors, and lifted heavy burdens for her. Before leaving the circle of Mr. Wright's I family, he assumed a name which his talents, perseverance, and genius, have rendered famous in both hemispheres; that of James W. C. Pennington. W. was in honor of his 'benefactor's family, while C. was for the family of his former master. Leaving the home of Mr. Wright, he gradually made his way to New Haven, Conn. Here, while performing the duties of janitor of Yale University, he completed the studies of the regular college course.

Sometime afterwards, he visited England where he delivered addresses on behalf of the Anti-Slavery cause. A story has often been told of him in connection with a visit to one of the great Universities of Scotland. It is said that he displayed such marvelous ability, was so profound as a thinker, and rhetorician, that the University was about to confer on him the honorary degree of Doctor in Divinity. But, Mr. Pennington objected. He is reported as having said, in substance, "No, gentlemen; I have too much respect for the degree to run the risk of seeing it placed upon the auction block; for it is possible, on my return to America, that I might be seized and placed upon the auction block, and sold to the highest bidder." But, finally, he did get the degree. For, later, he sojourned for a while at Heidelburg in Germany, where the degree was conferred upon him. He returned to this country and became the Pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church, New York City. While in such position, he was most active in the work of the Anti-Slavery cause. The story of his escape, and wonderful abilities, was spread over England. An American acquaintance of the Wright family was astonished, in visiting an Anti-Slavery fair in London, many years ago, to see among the pictures for sale there, one entitled, William and Phebe Wright receiving James W. C. Pennington." Dr. Pennington died in Florida, in 1870, whither he had gone to preach, and assist in opening schools among the Freedmen.

Nearly a quarter of a century, after the escape from slavery of Dr. Pennington, while he was pastor of the church in New York, efforts were made to effect the escape of his brother who was still in slavery in Maryland. In due season, his brother, and his brother's two sons, were on their way, by way of the Underground Railroad, to the city' of New York. At the very time the Dr.'s anxiety was very great with respect to their safety, they had arrived in the city of New York, and being pursued by slave officers, had been overtaken and hurriedly carried before a commissioner, and by him were ordered to be returned to Maryland. It was very great grief and disappointment to Dr. Pennington, that his brother, and his brother's sons, had been captured and returned to slavery in Maryland before he had been able to learn of their presence in that city. A meeting was held in Shiloh Church, New York, on the evening of May 27, 1854, and the following account of the same will prove of interest:

''Last evening the church at the corner of Prince and Marion streets was filled with an intelligent audience of white and colored people, to hear Dr. Pennington relate the circumstances connected with the arrest of his brother and nephews. He showed that he attempted to afford his brother the assistance of counsel, but was unable to do so, the officers at the Marshal's office having deceived him in relation to the time the trial was to take place before the Commissioners. Hon. E. F. Culver next addressed the audience, showing that a great injustice had been done to the brother of Dr. Pennington, and though he, up to that time, had advocated peace, he now had the spirit to tear down the building over the Marshal's head. Intense interest was manifested during the proceedings, and much sympathy in behalf of Dr. Pennington."

In a day or two, Dr. Pennington received a letter from Mr. Grove, the claimant of his brother, offering to sell him to Dr. Pennington, should he wish to buy him, and stating that he would await a reply, before ''selling him to the slave-drivers." In the midst of the Dr.'s grief, friends of the slave soon raised money to purchase his brother, about $1,000; but the unfortunate sons were doomed to the auction block and the far South.

Dr. Pennington in Cleveland

Dr. Pennington addressed a Convention of Colored Citizens, held in Cleveland, Ohio, September 8, 1852. and the I following is from a phonographic report at the time: I "The doctor took the stand and delighted the convention with a brilliant and instructive address on the pan which the Colored People have taken in the struggles of this Nation for independence, and in its various wars since its achievement.

Dr. Pennington is a graduate of America's Peculiar Institution (slavery). His graduation fees were paid only very recently by the beneficence of sundry English ladies and gentlemen; and his Doctorate of Divinity was conferred upon him by one of the German Universities.

He claimed for his race the honor of being the first S; Americans whose bosoms were fired by the spirit of American Independence. The documentary evidence presented by him showed that some thousands of Colored People in the State of New York, thirty years before the Declaration of Independence, were charged by the King of Great Britain with conspiring against his authority, attempting to throw off their obedience to him, and seeking to possess themselves of the Government of the Colony of New York. Some of them were banished, and other were hanged. Those Colored fathers, said the Rev. Doctor, attributed their slavery to King George, and maintained their rights to freedom to be inviolable.

Subsequently, when the White fathers of the Revolution, "walking in the footsteps of their illustrious Colored predecessors," declared against Britain's King, they said to them: That King did make you slaves. How come and help us to break his rule in this country, and that done, we'll all be free together.

Dr. Pennington exhibited to the audience an autograph petition of the Colored People of Connecticut to the Government of the State, presented immediately after the Revolutionary War, and praying that Government to comply with the promise which had been made them of freedom, and under which they had helped to fight the battles of that war.

He read also, an autograph paper of Washington, dismissing from the service of that war, with high recommendation of their courage and efficiency, several Colored men; and also certificates of a like character from a number of officers, both naval and military, in both wars with England.

 Maryland Biographies | Maryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.

 

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