Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Narratives of Thomas Robinson, September 29, 1788

Narratives of Thomas Robinson
Author(s): 
September 29, 1788
Robert, a negro man, held as a slave by Godfrey Wainwood,1 was captured in the late war2 at virginia by the French and brought here3 by them, the vessell he was taken in was burnt, and without his being libeled, was sold as a slave.—He denies that he was a slave in Virginia4
Ann or nanny, a negro woman held as a slave by Jonathan Stoddard, was born of free Parents; Job Carr of this Town5 between 30 & 40 years since, by his will freed the Parents of this woman, they took their liberty accordingly, which was never after called in Question by any of the Carr Family, and in about four years after their Freedom, they had this Daughter, who also was considered free, and not molested by any of the Family, till about two years since, when she fell sick, the overseers of the poor of this Town called upon the Carr Family to support her, and that Family sold her as a slave for twenty dollars; She has two sons of about 13 to 16 years of Age, whome the Carr Family took into Possession about the same time, and I am informed holds as slaves
She is a healthy strong negro woman, and capable of getting her living
A negro man from the Country, who has been a soldier in the American Army, and in that service was so free that he was considered as an invalid, and our assembly allowed him a Pension, He came to this Town to attend the the assembly to receive his pay, and being paid in paper money at parr with Silver, which I suppose not proving
Source Information: 
Narratives of Thomas Robinson
Robinson, Thomas, 1731-1817
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers (Collection 490)
Box 4A, Papers and related documents concerning court cases in which slaves were awarded freedom, 1773, 1780-1782, 1784-1785, 1787-1788, 1790
Narratives of Thomas Robinson
Author(s): 
September 29, 1788
sufficient to answer his purpose to purchase such necessaries as he proposed to carry home to his wife & Family, He was tempted to steal some small matters from three of four shop windows He was taken up and had before three Justice’s of the Peace viz Taylor, Ellery & Barker, the People from whome he stole received their Goods, and in consideration of his poverty made no further claim on him, but these justice's held their Court, and for the Court Charges and Prison fees took from him his twelve months pay about £12—which he had got from the assembly, sentenced him to be whiped whipped , and sold him for twenty one years, for thirty pounds paper money, to a Frenchman who carryed him to the west indies and sold him for a slave
Isaac a negro man held as a slave by Robert Stevens; He was a sailor in a merchant vessel from Jamaica bound to New York in the late war, and taken by a Privateer of this Town and brought in here and sold as a slave, I understand he had a paper, purporting that he was a free man, which he shewed to Chris Ellery, who was then Commissary of Prisoners and part owner of the Privateer, which paper he kept & the negro never could get again
This Acct. I have from William Langley who was one of the owners of the Privateer & was opposed to the selling of the negro
Source Information: 
Narratives of Thomas Robinson
Robinson, Thomas, 1731-1817
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers (Collection 490)
Box 4A, Papers and related documents concerning court cases in which slaves were awarded freedom, 1773, 1780-1782, 1784-1785, 1787-1788, 1790
Narratives of Thomas Robinson
Author(s): 
September 29, 1788
Narratives of Thos. Robinson 9 mo 2[?] 1788
Source Information: 
Narratives of Thomas Robinson
Robinson, Thomas, 1731-1817
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers (Collection 490)
Box 4A, Papers and related documents concerning court cases in which slaves were awarded freedom, 1773, 1780-1782, 1784-1785, 1787-1788, 1790
About This Document: 

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) may have been the first American organization of its kind, but it was not the last. Inspired by the efforts of the PAS after its founding in 1775, other antislavery societies quickly formed throughout the northern states. In 1785, the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves was incorporated. Both the PAS and the New York Society pressured Moses Brown, a successful businessman and abolitionist, to establish a similar group in the state of Rhode Island. On February 20, 1789, the Providence Abolition Society held its first meeting.

Although the PAS often led the abolition movement in the late 1700s, it constantly communicated with its sister societies to more effectively organize legislation, draft petitions, and offer legal assistance to slaves seeking freedom. The document presented above is evidence of this cooperation. Although it appears in the files of the PAS, every case mentioned in the document occurred in Newport, Rhode Island, and was primarily supported by the Providence Abolition Society. The PAS's Committee of Guardians and its Acting Committee collected many such documents from organizations around the country.

At the end of the 1700s, Newport was the busiest hub of slave trade in New England. Although the import and export of slaves had been banned in Rhode Island by 1787, the law was poorly enforced, and the number of imported slaves actually increased. As this document exhibits, it was also too easy for free African Americans throughout the United States to be abducted and sold into slavery. Robert was a victim of this state of affairs. After escaping in 1789 from the man he claimed had illegally enslaved him, he was quickly recaptured. Despite the Providence Abolition Society's legal defense, the court ruled in 1791 that Robert was still a slave. Fortunately for Robert, Wainwood agreed to release his claim of ownership if Robert would not appeal the decision, and Robert attained his freedom. Most other cases mentioned in this document did not result in freedom, despite the efforts of abolition societies.

Partially due to the coordination between the societies, every northern state had outlawed the slave trade and adopted some sort of manumission plan by 1792, and on March 2, 1807, the federal government officially banned the slave trade throughout the entire country. Each abolitionist organization understood, however, that emancipation in a few states was not enough to purge the nation of slavery.

Sources:

Jeffrey Nordlinger Bumbrey, A Guide to the Microfilm Publication of the Papers of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Abolition Society, 1976).

"How Did Slaves Make the Transition to Freedom in Rhode Island? The Revealing Case of Robert," Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, accessed October 2012, http://brown.edu/Research/Slavery_Justice/damiano/index.html.

Edward Needles, An Historical Memoir of the Pennsylvania Society, for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery; the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Thompson, 1848).

Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania digital history project.

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Pennsylvania Legacies 5, no. 2 (2005), esp. Christopher Densmore, "Seeking Freedom in the Courts: The Work of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race, 1775-1865," 16-19.

James F. Reilly, "The Providence Abolition Society," Rhode Island History 21 (1962): 33-48.