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Slaves, chained together in a coffle, are paraded through the streets of Washington D.C. on their way to the slave market. Detail from a larger print in the Library of Congress.

A series of pages exploring
various aspects of slavery in Pennsylvania

     
 

Frequently Asked Questions
About Slavery in Pennsylvania

What was the date that slavery ended in Pennsylvania, officially and unofficially. Also, what was the method?
How could there be so many term slaves in Pennsylvania in 1850, seventy years after passage of the Gradual Abolition Act?
What were some legal methods to abolish slavery and what were some obstacles that stood in the way of abolition?
When did slavery end in the other northern states?
What is the difference between a "term slave" and a "slave for life?"
According to old advertisements on your site, many captured slaves were kept in something called a "goal." What is that?
I saw something on the news the other night in reference to the end of slavery being June 19, 1865,  however I didn't catch all of it.  Please tell me the significance of this date.

►  What are the reasons why White Americans treated African Americans so badly in the years of slavery?

 

 

Q.  What was the date that slavery ended in Pennsylvania, officially and unofficially. Also, what was the method?

A.  No one knows for sure exactly when the last Pennsylvania slave crossed from being held in bondage to complete freedom, whether through manumission, legal action, or death. The census of 1850 was the first national census to record no slaves being held for life in the state (see note below), however there were still, in 1850, hundreds of children of slaves, who we now refer to as "term slaves," who were in bondage until their 28th birthday, in accordance with the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.

Officially, slavery ended in Pennsylvania with the state's ratification of the 13th amendment to the Constitution on February 3, 1865.  For more information on gradual abolition, see our text of the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.
Note:  The census of 1850 reported no slaves-for-life in the state of Pennsylvania, yet some researchers have questioned whether that is true.  They note that the 1850 census was the first census in Pennsylvania that had no column in which to record slaves.  They believe census takers merely counted slaves along with other non-white members of the households.

Q.  How could there be so many term slaves in Pennsylvania in 1850, seventy years after passage of the Gradual Abolition Act?

A.  The "hundreds of children of slaves" that were still around in 1850 came as a result of many severe abuses, misunderstandings and simple disregard for the law. Some of the most blatant and frequent abuses occurred in Lancaster County, where the children of slaves were themselves registered as children of slaves for another twenty-eight years. This practice obviously would have set up an endless cycle, which would have been contrary to the spirit of the law--yet few or none were challenged in court. Some of these abuses were possibly a result of a misunderstanding of the law, and some were justified by the slaveholders by the pregnancy of term slaves. In the latter cases, additional years were added to the terms of women in bondage who became pregnant while serving their twenty-eight year term, and their children were in turn registered as slaves.

See the entries for Mary H. Thompson, of Colerain Township, Lancaster County, for the slave child Saul, who was registered in 1830 as the "child of negro Eliza, servant of the said Mary H. Thompson until she arrives to the age of 28 years;" and the entry for Michael Graeff of the city of Lancaster, who in 1827 registered the child Chloe Ann, daughter of Hannah Boyle. Hannah had been registered as a child of a slave in 1805. Thomas Brice of Washington Borough, Washington County, in April 1829 registered Ann Clark the child of "Betsey a Slave until 28 years."

Q.  What were some legal methods to abolish slavery and what were some obstacles that stood in the way of abolition?

A.  In Pennsylvania, the only method of legally abolishing slavery was the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, which is explained below. In addition, slaveholders could manumit, or free, their slaves by putting this in writing and filing the document with the county or township in which they lived. This could be a direct manumission, or it could be predicated on certain conditions, such as the death of the owner, in a will. Of course manumission was a personal choice, and had no effect on the larger issue of abolition.

Obstacles to the abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania included resistance by slaveholders themselves, who did not want to lose the use of this labor force and the value that they had invested in their slaves. That is probably why the 1780 Act was gradual and not immediate. This allowed slaveholders to keep until death those slaves that they already owned, and only abolished lifetime slavery, substituting term slavery, for those born after March 1, 1780.

Another obstacle was the fear that manumitted slaves would become a burden on their local community, due to the mistaken belief that they would not know how to support themselves. For this reason, those persons who chose to manumit slaves had to post a bond within their community in case those former slaves became dependent on the public for support, or the slaveholder had to file papers agreeing to provide money to support the slaves.

Q.  When did slavery end in the other northern states?

A.  While some northern states prohibited slavery from the start, most had a history of tolerating or encouraging slaveholding.  The revolution had a strong impact on how slavery was perceived, and most northern states began to debate abolition during or soon after the war.   However, in states that passed gradual abolition legislation, slavery lingered in the form of term slavery for decades.  For many states, the only official end to slavery came in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  Chronologically, slavery ended in:

Vermont, 1777 (slavery prohibited by the state constitution)
Pennsylvania, 1780 (Gradual Abolition legislation)
Massachusetts, 1783 (Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling)
New Hampshire, 1783 or 1789 (accounts vary--no judicial records verify abolition)
Rhode Island, 1784 (Gradual Abolition legislation)
Connecticut, 1784 and 1797 (Gradual Abolition legislation)
New York, 1799 and 1817 (Gradual Abolition legislation)
Ohio, 1802 (slavery prohibited by the state constitution)
New Jersey, 1804 (Gradual Abolition legislation)
Indiana, 1816 (slavery prohibited by the state constitution)
Illinois, 1818 (slavery prohibited by the state constitution)

This information is from Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860.  (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1961) page 3.  For more details about individual states and the persistence of slavery, see "Slavery in the North." (http://www.slavenorth.com/index.html

Q.  What is the difference between a "term slave" and a "slave for life?"

A.  When Pennsylvania legislators decided to abolish slavery in the state, they knew that a complete and immediate abolition of the practice would cause a financial loss to slaveholders by freeing those persons that were already held in bondage.   They also knew that this would be politically unpopular, and might not pass a vote in the legislature.  So they decided on a gradual approach, setting a cut-off date, whereby all of the persons held in bondage as of  March 1, 1780 would remain in bondage, but all children of slaves born in Pennsylvania after that date would be held in bondage only until age twenty-eight.

This created two classes of slaves.  Those born prior to March 1, 1780 and considered slaves for their entire lives would remain "slaves for life."  However the children born after that date, to mothers who were considered "slaves for life," would be freed at age 28, and were originally referred to as "indentured servants," but who we now refer to as "term slaves."  We do this to distinguish these persons from other servants who were serving an indenture, usually of only a few years, in order to learn a trade or pay a debt. For more information on gradual abolition, see our text of the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.

Q.  According to old advertisements on your site, many captured slaves were kept in something called a "goal."  What is that?

A.  When local authorities suspected that an unfamiliar African American man or woman in their town was actually a runaway slave, they arrested the person and locked him or her up for further investigation.  They would then take out an advertisement in a local newspaper describing their prisoner.  Similarly, owners of slaves that had run away usually placed advertisements describing the runaway and the circumstances of his or her escape.  Both types of ads commonly referred to the place of confinement for the captured slave as a goal or gaol.  "Gaol" is nothing more than the old British spelling for our modern word "jail"--it's even pronounced the same way--and old newspapers often misspelled the word as "goal."  Jailers were referred to as gaolkeepers or gaolers (or goalkeepers and goalers).  Click here for an example of an advertisement that uses this term.

Q.  I saw something on the news the other night in reference to the end of slavery being June 19, 1865,  however I didn't catch all of it.  Please tell me the significance of this date.

A.  People celebrate various dates in this country regarding the end of slavery, and it depends upon your viewpoint of when it really ended. January 1st is often celebrated because it is the official date that Abraham Lincoln set in the Emancipation Proclamation for the end of slavery in areas affected by the proclamation. Many African American churches still celebrate this date with an event known as "Watch Night," held on New Year's Eve.  (click here for more on this subject)

August 1 used to be celebrated as Emancipation Day, as it marked the date in 1834 when Great Britain outlawed slavery in the British West Indies. This date was celebrated by African Americans in Harrisburg as late as 1859, according to news accounts from the time.  Some free African Americans preferred to celebrate July 5th, which was sometimes called the "Negroes' July 4th" because African Americans, prior to the Civil War, had little reason to celebrate independence alongside of whites, as the thinking went. Therefore many African Americans spent July 4th inside in protest, and out of a sense of safety, as rowdy whites often threw firecrackers at them. All of this changed after the Civil War, and neither of these dates are widely celebrated in the present day.

June 19, 1865 is known as "Juneteenth," and it marks the day when Union troops entered Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War. Up to that point, few of the slaves in Texas knew that the war had ended, and they were still being held in slavery. In reality, the war had ended over a month earlier. As word spread among slaves, in the following days, that the war had ended, they celebrated their new-found freedom and continued to hold celebrations every June 19th. Gradually the date became celebrated outside of Texas and today is commonly called Juneteenth, and commemorates the day that the last slaves in the U.S. were liberated.

It should be noted that slaves were still held in the Indian Territories, and would not be liberated until 1866 by various treaties.

Q.  What are the reasons why White Americans treated African Americans so badly in the years of slavery?

A.  Let's begin by recognizing that all slaves everywhere were, and are, treated badly. Slavery has existed since the times of ancient Greece and Rome, and it still exists today in many parts of the world. It existed, and exists wherever human beings allow their greed to overcome their compassion. You cannot "own" another human being, but you can own possessions, things and objects. Therefore, persons who owned slaves refused to recognize the basic humanity in the slaves that they owned and instead viewed these persons as something less than human beings.

I stated above that all slaves everywhere were and are treated badly. I understand that some cultures claim to respect certain rights among those they considered as slaves, and that those slaves were treated as members of the family and treated with basic human dignities. I reject this claim, because slavery is, in itself, an abomination to all persons who respect the basic right of any person to decide their own fate.

To answer your question more directly, white Americans who held slaves (and a few black Americans, too, were slaveholders), and those Americans who tolerated slavery, treated Africans and other dark-skinned people badly because they refused to recognize their basic humanity. Some were blinded by greed, others by the fear of persons who appeared differently from them. Many simply believed in the idea that white people, especially white people from Europe, were culturally superior to all other people. They then extended this concept to believe that this supposed cultural superiority gave them the right to control and even to own and exploit other people.

It took hundreds of years of protest by black and white Americans, and a very bloody civil war, to end slavery in the United States. Unfortunately, slavery still exists in many other parts of the world. Even more regrettably, the concept that some people are better than others simply because of their race, or heritage, or religion, still exists in the United States. However we can take comfort that our society as a whole recognizes the basic human dignity of all people, and that we are working to erase bigotry and discrimination based upon these concepts.
 

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