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When Pennsylvania Hall Burned: The Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society and the Mob

Lucretia Mott was not the only one fighting for abolition in Philadelphia. There was also:

I love this picture because underneath their severe hairstyles this looks like
any social justice group photo

I know what you're thinking: " their acronym...PASS?" And YES. Yes it IS. As in "How about some slavery?" "Mm, PASS. Get it? Like the society name and also I don't want any because it's terrible."

Mott and her husband James were co-founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833 (AASS -- no, the acronym is not as good, and yes, there were a lot of anti-slavery societies), and Mott helped craft this line of theirs, also mentioned in the previous post about her life:

The building in this picture is Pennsylvania Hall. Pennsylvania Hall was built by the badass SJWs in the first photo, aka the members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, as a place to hold meetings, preach, teach, whatever was needed in the work of abolishing slavery. They spent $40,000 in 1838 money to build it, which is about a million dollars today.

It stood for three days.

If people think about the North in general and Philadelphia specifically in the 19th century, they tend to assume it was a safe haven for people of color. Nope. Black Philadelphians not only dealt with day-to-day violence, but also endured race riots in their city in 1834, 1835, and 1837. When Pennsylvania revised its constitution in 1838, "the state simultaneously disenfranchised African American men."

Robert Purvis and other free blacks argued that the new constitution 'laid our rights a sacrifice on the altar of slavery,' in order to win favor from southern states. This loss of their citizenship further endangered the uneasy freedom of the state's African American population, now lacking the political power to resist further attacks on their civil rights.

Robert Purvis, who despite being able
to "pass," chose to identify with the
black community and fight for abolition
his entire life 

Mott and other Pennsylvania women founded the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which was shocking because 1) women were speaking publicly, and 2) black and white women were members of the same group and were sitting together. 

At the time that Pennsylvania Hall was built, women were pissed the hell off. Not every woman, obviously, because people are products of the times in which they live, but it seemed like a larger number than before was furious, and a large amount of that fury was directed at a recent move made by Congress. In the 1830s, the country was in a very peculiar mood. All sorts of religious cults were springing up, the Utopian movement was strong, Jacksonian democracy had taken root (this emphasized actual democracy as a value, and it had resulted in an extension of voting rights for white men). Women were taking part in this spirit of optimism and individualism by deciding they could really do something, despite their extremely limited political power.

The only political recourse women had at the time was to petition Congress. So they sent anti-slavery petitions, temperance petitions, etc, in droves to ensure they had some kind of voice in their country.

Then Congress passed a series of gag rules, and from 1836-1844, they tabled all anti-slavery petitions. "Women in particular watched as their sole political right evaporated."


So we come to 1838. Pennsylvania Hall has been built in Philadelphia. They hold their inaugural meeting with 3000 people attending. Black women, white women, black men, white men, all in attendance and sitting together (in the audience, but not on the stage, which the ever-fantastic William Lloyd Garrison complained about). This was a racially integrated meeting in 1838. Think about the attempts to racially integrate in 1960 at the Woolworth's lunch counter, and what it must have been like to be these 1838 people. In a city that had experienced riots surrounding race almost every year for the past four years. Imagine being a black woman at that meeting.

Rumors went around the city about the meeting. Somehow it was said that an interracial marriage was taking place. Crowds started to gather and surround Pennsylvania Hall. People began throwing rocks and bricks through the windows. Men ominously inspected the gas pipes on the outside of the building. Staunch abolitionist and South Carolinian Angelina Grimke was speaking onstage, and over the din from the outside, said "Hear it--hear it. Those voices tell us the spirit of slavery is here, and has been roused to wrath by our abolition speeches and conventions."

The meeting ended and the participants were able to exit without much harassment. The following day, however, the women held a much smaller meeting. The crowds came again, and again threatened the attendees: "During the meeting, the women remained calm, despite being surrounded by a mob filling the doors and threatening to enter the room."

After it was over, Lucretia Mott and all the attendees, black and white women, all who had returned despite the terror of the previous night, had to pass out through the crowd, now numbering in the thousands. Angelina Grimke, again being a 100% badass of a human being, "proposed that they link arms with the African American women present in order to protect them, and so they did." Angelina Grimke knew that while society was f'ed up enough to not punish people for terrorizing any class of black women, there would be hell to pay if they did it to middle class white women. In essence, she used her white privilege as a weapon against the very people who were struggling to uphold it.

The women left the building, and the mob burned it down.

Ten years later, white citizens sat in a crowd and listened to black speakers on the stage talk to them about black rights. Mott said:

At that meeting 10 years later, in 1848 (the same year as the groundbreaking Seneca Falls Convention), Mott stood in front of this group of tired social justice advocates. She tried to inspire them by looking to the past, not knowing that even then they were still 17 years and untold struggles away from the abolition of slavery. With a frank assessment of the situation, she said to them:

Even though the slaves are increasing in numbers, even though their territory is being enlarged at every circle, yet, when we look abroad and see what is now being done in other lands, when we see human freedom engaging the attention of the nations of the earth, we may take courage.

The future looked bleak. But there were signs, both in front of them at that meeting, and when they broadened their vision to the greater world, that all was not lost.

We today have much to fear about where our nation is heading. But when I see the progresses made in our lifetimes, I see three steps forward and two steps back. It is slow and it is painful and it is frustrating, but it is still an ever-trudging advance. Let us look not only immediately in front of us, but also at the broader world, and take courage.


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