Pennsylvania was a slave-holding colony from its inception, but its citizens were never very invested in the institution. The lack of cash crops, an abundance of indentured servants, and the colony’s largely Quaker population meant that the practice never really spread.
Slavery in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania was a very liberal and inclusive colony right from the outset, but still, it wasn’t immune to the evils of slavery. Although local Dutch and Swedish settlers were far more interested in fur trapping than farming, they still needed help with agricultural pursuits–and as early as 1639, African slaves were working for white men, including the state’s founding father, William Penn.
By 1639, there were so many slaves in the colony’s capital that the Philadelphia Council complained of “tumultuous gatherings of Negroes” within city limits. Chester County (a nearby rural community) had 104 slaves on 58 farms–and, shockingly, up to 70 percent of those slaveowners were likely Quakers.
It wasn’t long, however, before several groups, including German immigrants, Methodists, Baptists, and most prominently, those same English Quakers, were speaking out against the practice.
Abolition and emancipation
During the Great Awakening (or the Evangelical Revival) of the late 18th century, preachers emphasized the importance of living a pious and holy life. They sought to include every person in their conversions, regardless of race, gender, or status, and they actively encouraged slaveholders to free their servants.
Around the same time, high British tariffs discouraged the importation of further slaves and encouraged the use of free labor.
During the American Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780. After that date, any child born to a slave mother was free . . . sort of. They had to serve a period of indentured servitude until the age of 28. Gradually, the practice died out and after 1847, no more slaves appeared in official records.
Life in a free state
Long before it was common in the rest of the budding nation, Pennsylvania had a thriving African-American community. Black citizens commonly wrote about the importance of freedom and participated in abolitionist groups.
Anti-slavery pamphlets, still illegal in many other states, were widely distributed in Pennsylvania and papers printed articles about freedom. In addition, free blacks supported operations of the Underground Railroad and aided slaves in their fight for freedom. Unfortunately, despite state mandates, not all whites stood behind their black neighbors, and demonstrations and gatherings were frequently disrupted by rioters.