Narratives of Thomas Robinson, September 29, 1788
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.
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.