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James W. C. Pennington, 1807-1870
The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States
London: Charles Gilpin, 1849.

Summary

James W. C. Pennington (1807-1870) was born Jim Pembroke, a slave on the Maryland plantation of Frisby Tilghman. He escaped from slavery in 1828 at the age of twenty-one, leaving his parents and eleven siblings, and made his way north, where he lived first in Pennsylvania before moving to New York and finally settling in Connecticut. As a free man, he changed his name, educated himself in Christian theology and, feeling impelled to help relieve the suffering of his thousands of still-captive brothers and sisters, became a Presbyterian minister who dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery. In 1834, he became the first African American to attend classes at Yale University, and in 1841, he wrote what is thought to be the first history of African Americans, The Origin and History of the Colored People. His autobiographical narrative was published in 1849 under the title The Fugitive Blacksmith. He died in 1870 at the age of 63.

In The Fugitive Blacksmith, Pennington uses his account of his life to denounce the practice of slavery. Grounded in Christian sentiments, his preface condemns what he calls the "chattels principle," where people are listed as goods along with the livestock and other assets of a household (p. iv). Because of the chattels principle, Pennington argues, even the kindest masters cannot be true Christians; their willingness to buy and sell other human beings is contrary to the very foundations of Christianity. "Talk not then about kind and christian masters," he writes. "They are not masters of the system. The system is master of them" (p. vii). His concern for the effects of slavery not only on the slave but also on the masters—indeed, on society as a whole—characterizes much of the rest of his narrative.

Pennington traces his strong convictions that slavery is immoral to a time as a young man when he witnessed its horrors inflicted upon his father. While his father was "engaged in the tenderest of a shepherd's duties," feeding by hand a lamb that had lost its mother, Pennington watched his master approach in a foul mood and beat his father savagely for a trivial offense (p. 6). Never again, after seeing his father so cruelly and abjectly humiliated, could he be the same; he declares that "Although it was sometime after this event before I took the decisive step, yet in my mind and spirit, I never was a Slave after it" (p. 7). This determination resurfaces frequently as he describes his long road to freedom.

Of course, it was his refusal to be subject to his master's will that soon after drove him to escape. Fearing that his family would be implicated if he fled, he did not tell his parents or his siblings about his intent to leave, and, taking up his few belongings on a Sunday in November, he walked off the plantation where he had spent most of his life. Days of hunger and terror followed as he made his way north and was eventually apprehended by the citizens of a town he passed through, who demanded to know whether he was an escaped slave.

Here he found himself faced with a "great moral dilemma" (p. 21): he could lie, claiming to be a free man, and perhaps avoid being returned to his master's clutches; or he could tell the truth, honoring the principles of honesty that his parents had instilled in him. After a moment of deliberation, Pennington resolved that while telling the truth may seem virtuous, it would lead to the greater evil inherent in the institution of slavery; and telling a lie, though conceivably false and wicked, might secure his freedom, which ultimately was a higher form of good than the strict preservation of his honesty. Deciding that "the facts in this case are my private property" and that "these men have no more right to them than a highway robber has to my purse" (p. 22), Pennington insisted that he was a free man, and as he elaborated on his lie, they came increasingly to believe him. As a direct result, he found an opportunity to escape again and resume his journey north.

After entering Pennsylvania starving, exhausted, and still haunted by the fear of being overtaken by his master, Pennington encountered a kind woman who directed him to the home of a man who would be willing to help him. William Wright, a Quaker referred to in the narrative as W. W., invited the fugitive slave to "Come in and take thy breakfast, and get warm!" (p. 41), a phrase that made a profound impression on Pennington and which he tried later in his life to enact whenever others came to him for aid. He spent six months in W. W.'s family, where he received his first wages for employment and began the process of learning to read and write.

As Pennington studied the Bible and realized just how poor and fragmented his religious understanding had been as a slave, he became convinced of the vital importance of an education. Later in the autobiography, he will say, "There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I never can forgive. It robbed me of my education" (p. 56). He departed from W. W.'s home in search of knowledge, feeling the full weight of the ignorance and embarrassment that slavery had brought upon him. As he his readings opened his eyes to the doctrinal details of Christianity, they laid the groundwork for his work as a Presbyterian minister.

Pennington found work again in the household of Isaiah Kirk (whom he calls J. K.), where his terms of employment allowed him long hours alone to study the Bible and carefully hone his speaking skills. As he learned to see slavery not only as a grave offense against mankind, but also as a violation of God's most fundamental commandments, Pennington felt impelled to join the abolitionist cause, finding himself pondering how best to go about alleviating the suffering of the thousands of slaves who were still in thrall to their masters. After deep, grave reflection, "eventually my mind fixed upon the ministry as the desire of my whole heart," and having witnessed the "misery, ignorance, and wretchedness of the free coloured people," he decided that his most important calling was to educate his fellow men—bond and free, black and white alike—about the evils of slavery (p. 55).

Pennington's narrative portrays his life as both a physical and spiritual progression. His treatment of both movements—from slavery to freedom and ignorance to wisdom—condemns the chattels principle and stresses the urgency of education. "My object in writing this tract is now completed," he concludes. "It has been to shew the reader the hand of God with a slave; and to elicit your sympathy in behalf of the fugitive slave" (p. 56).

Works Consulted: Nichols, Charles. Black Men in Chains: Narratives by Escaped Slaves. New York: Hill & Wang, 1972; Webber, Christopher. American to the Backbone: The Life of James W. C. Pennington, the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Madeleine Read

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