Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania by Beverly C. Tomek

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania
by Beverly C. Tomek
Temple University Press, 144 pp., paperback $19.95

For generations, textbook histories discussing Pennsylvania and slavery made Pennsylvania look good. They focused on Quaker antislavery activism, passage of a pathbreaking gradual abolition law, and the emergence of a series of notable antislavery leaders, both African American and white. All true, Beverly Tomek argues in this trenchant study — but not helpful in understanding what slavery meant to Pennsylvania and how the peculiar institution’s foes battled a strong conservative current in the Keystone State.

In barely 100 pages, Tomek describes the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Pennsylvania in the 17th century, many through the port of Philadelphia; those who enslaved them; and how they fit into the colonial economy. Even Quakers bought and sold enslaved people because there was “no social stigma” in so doing. By 1780, the year the first gradual emancipation law passed, there were perhaps 6,000 enslaved people in the state, most located in Philadelphia and its environs.

Tomek walks readers through the complexities of divesting enslavers of their human property and the emergence of small but influential antislavery societies that eventually brought reform-minded women like Philadelphia’s Lucretia Mott into prominence. Tomek shines fresh light on the experience of Pennsylvania’s free Black community and the different notions of “immediatism” among antislavery advocates. (Some argued for “immediate” abolition, while others simply favored an immediate start towards gradual abolition.)

One of the virtues of this book is the way Tomek uses individual stories to exemplify her broader argument about slavery’s pernicious legacy. Her narrative is enlivened by references to “Phebe,” a West African woman who was enslaved and exported to Pennsylvania before the Revolution; Cuff Dix, like Phebe, a runaway; and the forceful antislavery advocate James Forten, reminding us that the personal is often political.

Rigorously researched and written with verve, Slavery and Abolition in Pennsylvania belongs on the short shelf of Pennsylvania books focused on slavery and race.

Michael J. Birkner
Gettysburg College