“Rights in Common with Other Americans”

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center

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While Thomas Garrett was the most famous stationmaster in Delaware, he was not the only one.  Two other active supporters of the UGRR were Peter Spencer and Abraham Shadd, both African-Americans.  In 1782 Spencer was born a slave in Maryland but was freed when his master died.  He moved to Wilmington, succeeded in business, and in 1813 founded the first African-American church, the African Union Methodist Protestant, still thriving today.  Shadd was a cobbler, businessman, and farmer, descended from a Hessian deserter of the Revolutionary War who married a black woman.  Both acted as stationmasters for the UGRR, but their support for black equality did not end there.

In 1831 they were joined by a third black man from Wilmington, teacher William S. Thomas, who taught a school for black children supported by the Wilmington Monthly Meeting from 1812-1835.  Together they drafted a letter published for the Sept. 24 issue of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper.  

At a church meeting in July, 1831, all three roundly condemned a proposal gaining popularity among whites and some blacks.  It is hard to imagine a idea endorsed by both abolitionists and slaveholders—but such was the American Colonization Society.

The proposal, originally promoted by a Negro, Paul Cuffe, was to start a colony on the west coast of Africa populated by American blacks returning to their supposed “mother country.”  Cuffe and many white supporters assumed that black people in America would never gain full acceptance as citizens, so they might as well find a land where they could.  In 1815 he took the first shipload of 38 free Negroes to what would become Liberia.  Many freed slaves were sent there, and free Negroes were encouraged to emigrate and start anew.  For some it made sense.

Spencer, Thomas, and Shadd disagreed, vehemently.  They wrote that, for most Black Americans, “Africa is neither our nation nor our home…our language, habits, manners, and morals are different from those of Africans.”  In addition, the reports of life in that colony suggested great hardships and high mortality among those who had emigrated.

Most of all, the three felt African-Americans had earned a place in this country.  The goals of the ACS were “wholly incompatible with the spirit of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”  African-Americans were “Natives of the United States…we have our attachment to the soil, and feel that we have rights in common with other Americans.”  They acknowledged that in that current time, those rights were denied, but they looked forward to a time when the “more than ordinary prejudice” against blacks would subside.

Spencer, Shadd, and Thomas could hardly have imagined the many generations necessary for their hopes to be realized—if indeed they have been; but the determination of these men, over 180 years ago, is inspiring.