Harrisburg's African American Community
To free African Americans in most northern cities, the question of whether to support African colonization was settled within months of the organization of the American Colonization Society in Washington, DC. At a meeting at Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia, in January 1817, the standing room only crowd of African American residents loudly and decisively voted against supporting the scheme to transport freed African Americans to Sierra Leone and Liberia. (Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 1969, p. 4)
The plan was peddled by the backers of colonization as a benevolent means of removing helpless and dependent freed slaves from a society that would be hostile toward them, and returning them to a land in which they could naturally flourish. Most free African Americans immediately saw through the claims of altruism and exposed the plan for what it was: a scheme to control the growth of the free African American population in the country--a population that was becoming an increasing threat to the institution of slavery.
African Americans in Harrisburg gathered in the place that had always offered them a forum for their views, their church. Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion was the oldest African American church in Harrisburg, its roots dating to 1816. In 1831 it was located in the section of town known as Judystown, named for Judy Richards, the venerable mother-in-law of Edward "King" Bennett, one of the leaders of the growing African American community. The church had been officially organized only two years before, and the congregation worshipped in an old log building at Third and Mulberry Streets. In 1839 they would move into a brand new brick church in Tanners Alley, but for now the log building suited their services and their meetings. The exact date of the anti-colonization meeting is not noted in the document, but the final resolution states that the proceedings of the meeting be signed and sent to William Lloyd Garrison for publication in the Liberator, which he did on October 8. It is reasonable to assume, then, that the meeting took place in late September 1831.
Rev. Jacob D. Richardson chaired the meeting and signed the document for publication. Richardson was the second pastor of Wesley church, taking over from Elder David Stevens, under whom the church grew so rapidly that the old log building was expanded by sixteen feet. George Chester, a member of the church, is mentioned in the fourth resolution from the end. Chester is appointed agent for the Liberator, and the fiery abolitionist newspaper would for years be available at his restaurant on Market Street.
Ironically, George Chester's son T(homas) Morris, born three years after this resolution, would be a proponent of African colonization, making the journey himself several times to Liberia, where he taught school and edited a newspaper, the Star of Liberia. T. Morris Chester would continue to champion the colonization cause until the start of the Civil War. (R. J. M. Blackett, Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent, 1989, pp. 11-30)
The following article is from the October 8, 1831 edition of The Liberator:
A Voice From Harrisburg
At a large, well informed and respectable meeting of the citizens of Harrisburg, convened at the African Wesleyan Methodist Church, for the purpose of expressing their sentiments in a remonstrance against the proceedings of the American Colonization Society, Rev. Jacob D. Richardson was called to the chair, and Jacob G. Williams appointed Secretary. After singing and prayer, the Rev. Mr. Richardson, in some concise remarks,— equalled by few, and exceeded by none,— expressed the object of the meeting. The Chairman called the house to order, and the following resolutions were unanimously acceded to:
Resolved, That we hold these truths to be self-evident, (and it is the boasted declaration of our independence,) that all men (black and white, poor and rich) are born free and equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is the language of America, of reason, and of eternal truth.
Resolved, That we feel it to be our duty to be true to the constitution of our country, and are satisfied with the form of government under which we now live; and, moreover, that we are bound in duty and reason to protect it against foreign invasion. We always have done so, and will do so still.
Resolved, Hence, that we view the efforts of the Colonization Society officious and uncalled for by us. We have never done anything worthy of banishment from our friends and home: but this we would say— if the Colonization Society will use their best endeavors and get our slave brethren transported to Liberia, when we as a free body of people wish to go, we will give the Colonizationists timely notice.
Resolved, That it is the firm and decided opinion of this meeting, that were there no free people of color among us, or if those who are free had remained in the degraded character of slaves, (or, as they sometimes call us, monkeys, apes, and baboons,) they would never have got up the chimerical scheme for our transportation to the burning shores of Africa, with the fancied vision of elevating us, as they say, to dignity and affluence.
Resolved, That we cannot remain inactive while Colonizationists are straining every nerve and racking their inventions to find out arguments to persuade our free colored brethren to migrate to an unknown land which we can no more lay claim to than our white brethren can to England or any other foreign country.
Resolved, That we reject the inhuman and unchristian measures taken by the Colonization Society, for the illumination of the colored citizens of the United States, their appropriate home, in a land of sickness, affliction and death, when they are not willing, with a few exceptions, to give us a christian education while among them. We would wish to know of the Colonizationists, how, in the name of common sense and reason, do they expect to do any thing for us thousands of miles across the Atlantic, when they oppose almost every measure taken by our white friends and brethren to improve our condition here?
Resolved, That it is the united opinion of this meeting, that the enemies of our race, who are members of the Colonization Society, see that the great Author of universal existence, who 'is no respecter of persons,' who taught Baalam's ass to speak, and taught Solomon wisdom, is now enlightening the sable sons of America: hence their object to drain the country of the most enlightened part of our colored brethren, so that they may be more able to hold their slaves in bondage and ignorance.
Resolved, That we object leaving the land of our birth, as there is sufficient land in these United States, on which a colony can be established that would be far more consonant to the wishes of the colored population generally, and would be more adapted to their constitution: neither would it involve the country in such expense as would be incurred by sending them to a howling wilderness, far away from the graves of their forefathers, unknown to us in every respect, unless by geography, which few of us understand.
Resolved, That this meeting look upon the Colonization Society as a vicious, nefarious and peace-disturbing combination, and that its leaders might as well essay to cure a wound with an argument, or set a dislocated bone by a lecture on logic, as to tell us their object is to better our condition; because its members acknowledge slavery to be a national evil, and use no means to annihilate it, but are exerting all their energies and influence to persuade the free people of color to remove to Africa, whose rights to Columbia's happy soil holds good with any other citizen in America.
Resolved, That we look upon the conduct of those Clergymen who have misled their respective congregations with the preposterous idea of the necessity of transporting the free people of color to Africa, as highly deserving the just reprehension directed to the false priests and prophets by the true prophets of the Most High; yet we gratefully acknowledge the respect we entertain for those who have defended our cause— we mean our white friends.
Resolved, That this meeting appoint Mr. George Chester, of Harrisburg, as agent for the Liberator, and will use our utmost endeavors to get subscribers for the same.
Resolved, That we will support the Colony in Canada, the climate being healthy and the rights of our brethren secured.
Resolved, That the gratitude of this meeting, which is so sensibly felt, be fully expressed to the Editors of the Liberator and Genius of Universal Emancipation, Messrs Garrison and Lundy, whose independence of mind and correct views of the rights of man have led them so intrepidly to speak in favor of our cause.
Resolved, That the proceedings of this meeting be signed by the Chairman and Secretary, and sent to the Liberator for publication.
JACOB D. RICHARDSON, Chairman.
|For an example of how Harrisburg passed
laws limiting the rights of free African Americans, see "Harrisburg's
'Free Person of Colour' Registration Ordinance of 1821."
Read the petition to congress by an assemblage of Harrisburg's white population in 1837: Dauphin County Citizens Petition Congress in Support of African Colonization.
Read about a renewal of the debate in the 1850's:
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This page was updated August 22, 2020.