Quakers and Slavery — History Tour, Old City, Philadelphia

By Pamela Moore

The Religious Society of Friends is well known for its members’ work in the 19th century abolitionist movement. The complex history of Friends and slavery is not as well known. This information and self-guided tour of Center City Philadelphia may provide a glimpse into that history. For a complete examination of Quakers and slavery, Fit for freedom, not for friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the myth of racial justice by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye and Let this voice be heard: Anthony Benezet, father of Atlantic abolitionism by Maurice Jackson are excellent resources. Henry Cadbury’s article from The Journal of Negro History, “Negro Membership in the Society of Friends, is also worth reading.

The tour starts and ends from the Arch Street Meetinghouse, 320 Arch Street. [1].

Walk West toward 6th Street on Arch.

Early history of slavery and anti-slavery protests among Friends

The first slaves came to Philadelphia on the ship Isabella in 1684, 3 years after the Quaker founders settled, and were sold to Quakers. (Jackson, 2009). Between 1682 and 1705, one in fifteen families in Philadelphia owned slaves, many of them Quaker families. Quakers were also involved in the slave trade; including Robert King (who bought Olaudah Equiano two years after the Yearly Meeting barred its members from owning slaves), James Claypool, Jonathan Dickinson and Isaac Norris Sr.(Thomas, 1997).

In 1688, four Quakers in Germantown presented the first protest against slavery to their Monthly Meeting. (Jackson, 2009) It was referred to the Quarter and then the Yearly Meeting, held in Burlington, New Jersey, without action. Yearly Meeting concluded that it would not be “proper for this Meeting to give a positive Judgement in the Case. It having so General a Relation to many other parts, and therefore at present they forbear it.” (Jackson, 2009).

In 1693, a Friend named George Keith published An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning the Buying or Keeping of Negroes. In 1696, two Quakers, William Sotheby and Cadwalder Morgan called for a ban on slave ownership within the Society of Friends. (Jackson, 2009). The Yearly Meeting Minutes of 1696 advised, “Friends be careful not to encourage the bringing in of any more Negroes…” and went on to advise Friends to look after the moral and spiritual well being of their slaves..There is some evidence that Philadelphia Monthly Meeting advised slave owning Quakers to bring their slaves to “the publick meetings of worship on first days.” (Cadbury, 1936).

In 1712, William Sotheby petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to free all slaves and was refused. In 1713 Chester Monthly Meeting called for banning of slavery and censure of those who did not comply. In response, the Yearly Meeting urged Friends not to trade in slaves and to treat their slaves with compassion. (Jackson, 2009) In 1738 Quaker Benjamin Lay, a vegetarian who lived in a cave and refused to use any products made by slaves, made a dramatic presentation denouncing slavery at the Yearly Meeting and was publicly disowned. However, his principals and lifestyle likely influenced Anthony Benezet and John Woolman. (Jackson, 2009).

In 1731, 20% of Quakers owned slaves, accounting for 30% of slaves in the city. By the 1770s only 7% of Quakers owned slaves (total of 38 slaves or 3% of the slaves in the city). This is attributed to deaths, decrease in slave trading, sales of slaves to people outside the city, escape to freedom and manumission. (Jackson, 2009).

In 1775, the Yearly Meeting called on Quakers to free their slaves and set up visitations for those who did not comply. Most did not comply immediately. By 1778 Philadelphia Quarter reported that most of its Meetings were clear of slaves. (Jackson, 2009). The manumission certificates did not provide for immediate freedom but for gradual freedom over periods of 1-21 years, depending on the age of the slave.

The Yearly Meeting also called upon its member meetings to set up committees to help the newly freed slaves.

In 1775 the first of the anti-slavery societies, the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery, was founded (Bristol Bay Productions, 2007).

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Emancipation Act, which declared that all persons born into slavery after that date would be freed upon their 28th birthday (Bristol Bay Productions, 2007). It also barred the purchase of any new slaves within the state and mandated that slaves brought to Pennsylvania from out of the state would be free after six months residence in Philadelphia. (Actual abolition did not come to Pennsylvania until 1847.)

In 1788, Pennsylvania strengthened its emancipation law by adding a provision that blacks may not be removed from the state, which effectively outlawed the kidnapping of free blacks into slavery. Despite these early efforts, by 1830 there were more than 2 million people living in slavery in the U.S. (Bordewich, 2005).

Stop at 5th and Arch Street. Benjamin Franklin’s grave is at the corner of 5th and Arch. Across the street to the north is the historical marker for the Female Anti-Slavery Society, [2] founded in 1833 by Lucretia Mott, Mary Grew, Grace Bustill Douglass, Margaretta Forten, Mary Anne McClintock and other prominent Philadelphia women of both African and European ancestry (Brown, 1978).

The Female Anti Slavery society came about because women typically were not afforded full participation in the other movements. The American Anti-Slavery and Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery societies came about because people became impatient with what they perceived to be slow movement of the Abolition Society. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was focused on helping free blacks and was content with a gradual approach to abolition. It lobbied for the gradual abolition act in Pennsylvania. Anti-Slavery Societies were more radical, calling for immediate freedom.

Walk another block west to 6th Street and north toward Race, and you will find the historical marker for the site of Pennsylvania Hall (WHYY, 2008), [3]

Pennsylvania Hall was built in 1838 by abolitionists, including James and Lucretia Mott, denied rental space in other buildings because of the rising violence against them, to be used for anti-slavery related meetings and a free product store.

Its only event was the second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. The event, considered provocative in its time, included mixed audiences of both people of African and European descent and mixed audiences of men and women. (McDaniel, 2009). On the second night of the meeting, when Quaker women were among those to address a mixed-gender audience, a crowd estimated at as many as 10,000 gathered outside. [The crowd was aware of the previous evening’s wedding of Angelina Grimke and Theodore Weld and interracial guest list]

Sarah Grimké offered a resolution calling upon the women “to treat Negroes on the basis of social equality, to appear with them in public places and to exchange home visits.” As they were leaving the hall that evening, Sarah’s sister, Angelina Grimké, suggested that the women of European ancestry join their African American sisters arm-in-arm. They were not attacked that night, but the next night, a mob broke in and burned the empty hall, then started for the homes of the Motts and other delegates. Someone in the crowd diverted them from the Motts’, but the rioters burned the Bethel (AME) Church and the Colored Orphan Asylum nearby.

Walk south on 6th street one block to Market. The site of the first White House, where George Washington kept slaves, is located on Market between 5th and 6th (Klein, 2008). [4] By that time, Pennsylvania had passed the Gradual Emancipation Act that allowed slaves brought to Pennsylvania from another state to claim freedom after six months. George Washington rotated his slaves in Philadelphia for six month periods so that they could not claim freedom under the Gradual Emancipation Act.

Cross the park where the Liberty Bell is located walking southeast to Fifth Street. Walk South on Fifth Street to Walnut. Just past Walnut, at St. James Street, you will see the marker for the site of the original St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, [5] the first African Episcopal Church in the nation, founded in 1794, by Absalom Jones. This church and Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in the nation, founded by Richard Allen in 1794 and still located a few blocks south at 6th & Lombard, were the first independent black churches. They were very involved in the early anti-slavery and abolitionist movements. Both of these ministers were educated at Anthony Benezet’s school.

Walk through the park between 5th and 4th Streets and between Chestnut and Walnut. [6] This is a good opportunity to see some of the green space in Philadelphia in the tradition of William Penn’s “Greene Country Towne” (Hotchkin, 1903).

Then walk South on 4th just past Walnut to Willings Alley and left on Willings to 3rd St., then back to Walnut and down to Second Street. Anthony Benezet’s school was located near the corner of Willings Alley and 3rd Street, on Rasberry Street, which may have been the small alley parallel to Willings Alley to the South. [7]

Anthony Benezet

Image Credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University
Anthony Benezet was possibly the most instrumental person in convincing Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to ban slavery. Born in 1713, he came from a French Huguenot family, who moved to England around 1715 and then to Philadelphia in 1731. (Jackson, 2009). Having experienced persecution himself, he empathized with the treatment of slaves and free African Americans in Philadelphia. He married Quaker Joyce Marriott Benezet in 1736 at Philadelphia Friends Meeting. They had two children who died in infancy. He began teaching at a Quaker school in Philadelphia in the late 1930s and ran the William Penn Charter School from 1742-1754. Anthony and Joyce became vegetarians because they did not want to eat anything that might be associated with slave labor. (Jackson, 2009).

In 1750, this member of the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia began tutoring black children in his home, practicing his belief that education was the mechanism to complete integration of the races (Bordewich, 2005). Prominent African Americans such as James Forten, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were all educated at Anthony Benezet’s school. When it became clear that his students were capable of the same achievement as whites, Benezet undermined popular assumptions about black intellectual inferiority and helped convert Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and others to abolitionism. He operated the school in his home for twenty years, until Philadelphia Friends established a school for the free education of African American children (School for Black People (African Free School)) in 1770. Benezet's school, which later became the Raspberry Street Schools, lasted for over a hundred years. (Lacey, 1999). Benezet returned to teach at the school in 1781 and ran it until his death in 1784. (Jackson, 2009). He left his estate, after the death of his wife, to be used for the education of African American children.

In addition to teaching, Anthony Benezet, along with John Woolman, was visiting Quaker slave owners during the 1750s to convince them to free their slaves. In 1758 Anthony Benezet gave a passionate ministry to the Yearly Meeting, which then agreed to condemn slavery and urge Quakers to manumit their slaves. (Jackson, 56). In 1759, Anthony Benezet published the pamphlet, Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes.

In 1775, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (as well as New York and New England) made slave ownership an offense that would cause a Friend to be ‘disowned’ from a meeting, although Friends were permitted to free their slaves over a period of time (Bordewich, 2005).

As you walk down Walnut Street toward Second Street, you will see Dock Street. Philadelphia became a haven for fugitive slaves during the early 1800s. African Americans William Still and Robert Purvis lead Philadelphia’s efforts to help the escaping fugitives (McDaniel & Julye, 2009). Some Quakers assisted with these efforts; however, the Quaker reputation was earned by a relatively small number of Friends. An early example, in 1801, was Friend Isaac Hopper, a newly–elected member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. He was given the assignment of investigating and representing the claims of blacks who asserted that their liberty was being illegally denied (Bordewich, 2005). He began an informal cooperation helping fugitive slaves as a matter of conscience. His house at the corner of Dock and Walnut Streets served as a refuge for fugitives and kidnap victims.[8] Although only a few Friends assisted this cause, turning in another Friend for practicing his religion as he saw fit was also unconscionable to Friends. Therefore, abolitionists were able to safely hide fugitives in Quaker neighborhoods, although only a small minority of Friends may have participated in the actual activity.

Walk North on Second Street to Sansom Street to Welcome Park, [9] the site of William Penn’s first home in Pennsylvania.

Welcome Park has a wall showing a timeline of the events in William Penn’s life. He only lived in Philadelphia for 2-3 years, while his Bucks County estate, Pennsbury, on the Delaware River was constructed. It was finished in 1671. Shortly thereafter he moved back to England. William Penn had slaves at his estate at Pennsbury. He wrote a Will in 1700 that freed them upon his death. However, his last Will of 1711 did not mention the manumission of slaves, and they continued to work at Pennsbury after his death (Block, 2008). His widow asked James Logan to oversee the sale of the slaves after his death (Jackson,2009).

Continue walking North on 2nd Street. The former site of Anthony Benezet’s home (no site markings) was located at 115 Chestnut Street, which is most likely to the right and down the block from the corner of Second and Chestnut Streets. [10]

Walk up Second Street to Market. [11] The site of the former Great Meetinghouse (1695-1754) and Greater Meetinghouse (1755-1804) is on the Southwest corner of 2nd and Market (Keels, 2007). [no site markings] The Greater Meetinghouse was torn down, the land sold and the profits used to build the current Arch Street Meetinghouse. The meetinghouse was only one block from the London Coffee House at Front and Market Streets, where a slave auction was held. The other site of slave auctions was Congo Square, now known as Washington Square (Quest for Freedom, 2008).

Walk up Second Street to Arch to the historical marker for Cyrus Bustill on Arch between 2nd and 3rd streets. [12] Born in 1732, he was the son of Samuel Bustill, a New Jersey lawyer, and one of his slaves (Bacon, 2003). Cyrus, himself a slave, was sold to a Quaker, Thomas Prior, a baker, who taught Cyrus the baking trade, and after seven years, manumitted him (at age 36). Cyrus set up his own baking business in Burlington. During the Revolutionary War, he baked bread for the Continental troops. Eventually, he moved to Philadelphia and set up shop at 56 Arch Street.

Cyrus attended Quaker Meeting with Thomas Prior and later on his own. He married Elizabeth Morey, daughter of Englishman Richard Morey and a Delaware Indian woman named Satterwait, who had been a maid in the household of Quaker Nicholas Waln. The couple had eight children, one of whom, Grace Bustill Douglass, became a leader of the anti-slavery movement. (Bacon, 2003).

After retiring from baking, Cyrus started a school in his home in 1803. He died in 1806. The famous singer Paul Robeson was his great-great-great grandson. (Bacon, 2003).

Grace Bustill Douglass attended Meeting with her parents at North Meeting on Keys Alley and attended school in Philadelphia. In 1803, she married Robert Douglass, a hairdresser and co founder of the First African Presbyterian Church. They had six children, including Sarah who followed her mother into Quakerism. Grace founded a school for black children, and in 1833, co-founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. In spite of her faithfulness to Meeting and prominence in the abolitionist movement, Grace Douglass experienced prejudice within the Society of Friends. She was directed to sit on a separate bench in Meeting for Worship and was also discouraged from applying for membership in the Society of Friends. Despite this treatment, Grace Douglass continued to worship at Quaker Meeting all of her life. (Bacon, 2003).

Walk up Arch Street and end your tour in the West Room of the Arch Street Meetinghouse.

Sarah Douglass became a teacher at her mother’s school and opened her first school as a teenager herself (Bacon, 2003). She attended North Meeting and Arch Street Meeting with her mother, sitting on the segregated bench. She became active in the Female Anti-Slavery Society and became friendly with European American abolitionists Angelina and Sarah Grimké, who encouraged Sarah to speak out about the segregationist treatment by Friends.

When the Grimké sisters sat beside Grace Douglass at Arch Street Meeting in 1837, they were visited by Meeting elders who remonstrated with them about it (Bacon, 2003). After Grace died in 1842, and there was no mention of it in the Quaker publication The Friend, Sarah was greatly hurt (Bacon, 2003). In 1844, with urging from Sarah Grimké, Sarah Douglass wrote a letter to The Friend about the separate seating at Arch Street and North Meetings.

“For several years we were squeezed into a little box under the stairs at Arch Street Meeting and after awhile we sat on the back bench. …..When North Meeting was moved to its present location, Mother went determined not to sit upon the back bench unless she was told to make her seat there. She was about seating herself in another part of the house when a Friend beckoned her to the back bench and told her it was set apart for colored people.” (Bacon, 2003).

By the 1850s, the attitude at Arch Street Meeting had changed, influenced, perhaps, by Sarah’s writings. Both Grace and Sarah’s devotion to their faith is evident in their continued worship among Friends who did not welcome them:

“The hardest lesson my Heavenly Father ever set me to learn, was to love Friends; and in anguish of spirit I have often queried; why the Lord should require me to go among a people who despise me on account of my complexion; but I have seen that it is designed to humble me and to teach me the lesson, “Love your enemies and pray for them who despitefully use you.”

[Letter from Sarah Grimké, describing what Grace Bustill had relayed to her daughter Sarah Douglass] (Bacon, 2003).


Bacon, M. H. (2003). Sarah Mapps Douglass, faithful attender of Quaker Meeting: View from the back bench. (Foreword by Vanessa Julye). Philadelphia: Quaker Press of Friends General Conference.

Block, K. (2008). Cultivating inner and outer plantations: Profit, industry and slavery in early Quaker migration to the New Word. Paper presented at the Program in Early American Economy and Society Markets and Morality Conference.

Bordewich, F.M. (2005). Bound for Canaan: The epic story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. New York: Harper Collins.

Bristol Bay Productions, (2007). American anti-slavery and civil rights; a timeline in context. Retrieved December 24, 2008 from http://www.amazinggracemovie.com/slavery_timeline.php.

Brown, I.V. (1978). Cradle of feminism: The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1933-1840. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 102, 142-166.

Cadbury, H. (1936 ). Negro membership in the Society of Friends. The Journal of Negro History, 21, 151-213. Retrieved August 24, 2010 from http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qwhp/hcjnh1.htm

Dribben, M. (2003) Philadelphia Inquirer January 4. Retrieved April 16, 2011 from http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/news/inq010403a.htm

Hotchkin, S.K. (1903). Penn’s Greene Country Towne. Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach. Citing William Penn's Instructions to his Commissioners, William Crispin, John Bezar, & Nathaniel Allen, dated September 30, 1681.

Jackson, M. (2009). Let this voice be heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic abolitionism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Keels, T. (2007). Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost architecture of the Quaker city. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Keith, G. (1693). An exhortation & caution to Friends concerning the buying or keeping of Negroes. Reprinted from The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Moore, G., ed. Philadelphia: n.p., 1889. Retrieved August 25, 2010 from http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qwhp/gk-as1693.htm

Klein, J.(2008, February). George Washington’s slaves. Preservation Magazine. Retrieved December 26, 2008 from http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2008/story-of-the-week/george-washingtons-slaves.html.

Lacey, P. A. (1999). With relation to time and eternity. Earlham College Convocation. Retrieved December 26, 2008 from http://www.earlham.edu/~laceypa/lacey_convo.html.

McDaniel, D., & Julye, V. (2009). Fit for freedom, not for friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the myth of racial justice. Philadelphia, Pa: Quaker Press of Friends General Conference.

Quest for Freedom. (2008). Freedom Journeys. Retrieved December 26, 2008 from http://www.questforfreedom.org/freedomjourneys/philadelphia_historic_district.aspx.

Thomas, H. (1997). The slave trade: the story of the Atlantic slave trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Map Sites

[1] Arch Street Meetinghouse, 320 Arch Street

[2] Historical Marker for Female Anti-Slavery Society, 5th & Arch Street, Northeast Corner

[3] Historical Marker for Pennsylvania Hall, 6th Street, between Arch and Race, West Side

[4] Site of the first White House, Market Street between 5th and 6th

[5] Site of the original St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, 5th & St. James Street

[6] Park area between 5th and 4th Streets and between Chestnut and Walnut.

[7] Site of former Raspberry Street School, Rasberry Alley (no longer marked), just off Willings Alley, one half block south of Walnut & Fourth Streets).

[8] Site of former home of Isaac Hopper, Dock and Walnut Streets

[9] Site of William Penn’s first home in Pennsylvania, Second and Sansom Street

[10] Site of Anthony Benezet’s former home, 115 Chestnut Streets.

[11] Site of the former Great Meetinghouse and Greater Meetinghouse, 2nd and Market Street, Southwest corner

[12] Historical marker, site of Cyrus Bustill’s shop, Arch Street between 2nd and 3rd streets

Related Links

American National Biography Online (Lucretia Mott)

Anthony Benezet (biography and bibliography)

A Quaker Page

Fair Hill Burial Ground

Female Anti-Slavery Society

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church,

Pennsylvania Hall

St. Thomas African Episcopal Church

Woolman, J. (1922). The Journal and Essays of John Woolman. Gummere, A.M., ed. New York: The Macmillan Company

Welcome Park

Information compiled by Pamela Moore, 2011