James W.C. Pennington

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For the modern musician, see James Pennington.

James William Charles Pennington (1807–1870) was an African-American orator, minister, writer, and abolitionist active in Brooklyn, New York. He escaped at the age of 19 from slavery in western Maryland and reached New York. After working in Brooklyn and gaining some education, he was admitted to Yale University as its first black student. He completed studies and was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, later also serving in Presbyterian churches, for congregations in Hartford, Connecticut; and New York. After the Civil War, he served congregations in Natchez, Mississippi; Portland, Maine; and Jacksonville, Florida.

In the antebellum period, Pennington was an abolitionist, and among the American delegates to the Second World Conference on Slavery in London. In 1850, he happened to be in Scotland when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the US Congress. As it increased the risk for fugitive slaves in the North, he stayed in the British Isles while friends worked to buy his freedom from his former master and then from his estate. Pennington raised funds for the abolition movement on the public lecture circuit in England.

Pennington wrote and published what is considered the first history of blacks in the United States, The Origin and History of the Colored People (1841).[1] His memoir, The Fugitive Blacksmith, was first published in 1849 in London.

Early life and education[edit]

Born into slavery in 1807, he was named James at a Tilghman plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. When he was four years old, James and his mother were given to Frisby Tilghman, their owner’s son, as a wedding gift. They were taken by the younger Tilghman to his new plantation called Rockland, near Hagerstown in western Maryland.[2] James was trained as a carpenter and blacksmith.[2] On October 28, 1827, at the age of nineteen, James escaped from the plantation.[3]

After a series of misadventures James reached Adams County, Pennsylvania, where he was taken in by Quakers William and Phoebe Wright, who were glad to assist the fugitive from slavery. As James was illiterate, Wright began to teach him to read and write. James adopted the surname of Pennington, after a prominent man in Quaker history, and the middle name William after his benefactor.[4]

Move to New York[edit]

Moving north to Brooklyn, New York a year later in 1828, Pennington found work as a coachman for a wealthy lawyer. He continued his education, paying tutors out of his earnings, and teaching himself Latin and Greek.[5] New York's law for gradual abolition of slavery did not free all adults until 1827. In the early 1800s Kings County and Brooklyn still had many enslaved laborers, as they were important to the agricultural economy.[6]

Pennington attended the first Negro National Convention in Philadelphia in 1829. He continued to be active in the Negro Convention movement, becoming its presiding officer in 1853.[7] Within five years he had learned so much that he was hired to teach school in Newtown, Long Island.[8]

He became involved in the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, Manhattan. Wanting education, he was accepted as the first black student at Yale University, though with the proviso that he must sit in the back of the room and not ask questions.[9] After completing his studies at Yale, Pennington was ordained to the ministry of the Congregational Church. He first served a congregation on Long Island.

Next he was called in 1840 by the Talcott Street Church (now called Faith Congregational Church) in Hartford, Connecticut.[10] While serving as minister, Pennington wrote the first history of African Americans, The Origin and History of the Colored People (1841).[1]

He became deeply involved in the abolition movement. He was selected as a delegate to the Second World Conference on Slavery in London.[11] Returning to Hartford after being invited to preach and serve communion in English churches, Pennington persuaded his white colleagues to include him in their pulpit exchanges. He was the first black pastor to preach in a number of Connecticut churches.

He became friends with John Hooker, one of his parishioners, confiding in him in 1844 his status as a fugitive slave and concern about his future. Hooker opened secret negotiations with his former owner, Frisby Tilghman, but he and Pennington did not then have the $500 demanded by the master, who died soon after.[12]

Pennington was among those who became involved in seeking justice for West African Mende illegally taken in slavery, in the Amistad case, which was litigated from 1839-1841 and ultimately settled by the United States Supreme Court in favor of the Mende. When the West Africans won their case and freedom, thirty-five chose to return to Africa. Pennington formed the United Missionary Society, the first black missionary society, to help raise funds for the return.[13]

Pennington happened to be in Scotland when the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed, which increased the threat to him as a fugitive. It required even law enforcement and officials in such free states as New York to cooperate in the capture and prosecution of fugitive slaves, and was biased in favor of slave catchers and masters. Bounties were offered for slaves' capture and documentation requirements were light, in favor of slave catchers. Although Pennington was called to New York in 1850 to serve the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, he feared returning while at such risk.[14] Hooker worked with abolitionists in England to raise money to purchase Pennington from Tilghman's estate (the planter had died). Friends of Pennington in Dunse, Berwickshire raised the funds. Hooker briefly took "ownership" of Pennington in order to manumit him in the US.[12]

While remaining in the British Isles for nearly two years for his safety, Pennington traveled widely there and in Europe, speaking and raising money for the abolition cause. He had completed his memoir, entitled The Fugitive Blacksmith, which was first published in 1849 in London. This slave narrative recounted his journey from slavery to the status of educated minister. While in Europe, Pennington was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Heidelberg.[15]

After returning to the United States, Pennington helped form a committee to protest the segregation of the New York City (including Brooklyn) street car system; schoolteacher Elizabeth Jennings had been arrested in 1854 for using a street car reserved for whites.[16] Several private companies operated all the street cars and segregated blacks in seating. Jennings' case was settled in her favor in February 1855 by the Brooklyn Circuit Court.[17]

When Pennington was arrested and convicted in 1859 for riding in a "white only" street car operated by another company, he was represented by the Legal Rights Association, formed by Thomas L. Jennings, Elizabeth's father.[16] It challenged the system successfully and on appeal, gained an 1855 ruling by the State Supreme Court that such segregation was illegal and must end. By 1865, after starts and stops, all the street car companies had desegregated their systems.[18]

Civil War and after[edit]

Pennington identified as a pacifist, but during the American Civil War (1861-1865), he helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. When the war was over, he served for a short time as a minister in Natchez, Mississippi. Next he was called to Portland, Maine, where he served for three years.

Early in 1870, he returned to the South, where he had been appointed by the Presbyterian Church to serve in Florida. He organized an African-American congregation in Jacksonville. He died there on October 22, 1870, after a short illness.[2]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • In 1849 the University of Heidelberg awarded Pennington an honorary doctorate of divinity. The university has created the James W.C. Pennington Award in his honor. It is given to scholars who have done distinguished work on topics important to Pennington. The first recipient was Albert J. Raboteau. The award has also gone to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Laurie Maffly-Kipp and William L. Andrews.[19]


  • The Origin and History of the Colored People (1841), considered the first history of African Americans.[1] He directly challenged published statements by former President Thomas Jefferson as to the "inferiority" of black people.
  • The Fugitive Blacksmith (1849), his memoir, a slave narrative, was published first in London.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d James W. C. Pennington, 1807–1870, The Fugitive Blacksmith; "Summary", Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 29 March 2013
  2. ^ a b c Pennington, Thomas H. Sands, "Events in the Life of J.W.C. Pennington, D.D.", an unpublished letter to Marianna Gibbons, Lancaster Historical Society
  3. ^ Pennington, p. 15.
  4. ^ Pennington, p. 43
  5. ^ Pennington, p. 52
  6. ^ Edward Rothstein, "When Slavery and Its Foes Thrived in Brooklyn: ‘Brooklyn Abolitionists’ Reveals a Surprising History", New York Times, 16 January 2014, accessed 16 August 2014
  7. ^ Bell, Howard Holman (1969) A Survey of the Negro Convention Movement, 1830–1861. New York, Arno Press
  8. ^ Pennington, p. 56
  9. ^ "Dr. Rev. Pennington", Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 14 August 1851.
  10. ^ New Haven West Association Records, 1734–1909, Vols. 5–6 (1832–1903).
  11. ^ Webber, pp. 120–147
  12. ^ a b John Hooker, "Rev. Dr. Pennington", Frederick Douglass' Paper, 26 June 1851
  13. ^ Webber, pp. 162–169.
  14. ^ Webber, p. 255.
  15. ^ Thomas, Herman E. (1995) James W. C. Pennington: African American Churchman and Abolitionist, Routledge, p. 184, ISBN 0815318898.
  16. ^ a b Greider, Katherine (13 November 2005). "The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-24. 
  17. ^ “Wholesome Verdict,” New York Times, 23 February 1855
  18. ^ Volk, Kyle G. (2014). Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 148, 150-153, 155-159, 164. ISBN 019937192X.
  19. ^ "James W.C. Pennington Award". Heidelberg Center for American Studies. October 2, 2015. Retrieved October 12, 2015. 


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