African-American Minister, Teacher, Abolitionist
The man who made himself Dr. James William Charles Pennington was born Jim Pembroke, a slave in Maryland. Clearly an exceptionally intelligent young boy, he was apprenticed by his master to a stonemason and then to a blacksmith. When he was about twenty, altercations between his parents and their master, punctuated by savage whippings, made him determined to escape north to freedom. His journey was hair-raising, as slave catchers apprehended and held him for a time, though he managed a second escape. Eventually, travelling by the North Star, he made his way to Pennsylvania, where a Quaker harbored him and began his formal education.
In 1828 Pennington relocated to New York City, working as a blacksmith and attending school at night. Under the spiritual guidance of Dr. S.H. Cox, a Presbyterian minister, he cultivated a devout Christianity. And he began to involve himself in abolitionist activities as well, participating in several national conventions of free African-Americans in Philadelphia in the early 1830s. Here he met William Lloyd Garrison, Simeon S. Jocelyn and Lewis Tappan -- the latter two, of course, would be key associations in the abolitionist management of the Amistad Africans. And he began teaching in a school for black children in Newtown, Long Island.
In 1834 Pennington relocated again, to New Haven, where he audited classes at Yale and meanwhile became a pastor at the Temple Street Congregational Church. Within four years he completed his studies and was ordained a minister. He set up his first ministry back in Newtown, but moved several years later to Hartford, where he became minister of the black Congregational Church (also called the Talcott Street Church) and teacher at the church's school for African-American children. Under Pennington's leadership the church played a leading role in the abolitionist movement, hosting the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society at one point, and in 1843 resolving to ban slaveholders from taking communion or taking the pulpit. He travelled widely through the state, meeting with other African-American ministers, and frequently delivered sermons in other churches, both black and white, while inviting ministers of both races to preach in the Talcott Street Church.
Pennington's brand of abolitionism was distinctly evangelical and closely tied to other moral reform movements. In 1833, while attending one of the national conventions of free blacks, he joined a call for the creation of temperance societies for African-Americans; thereafter he played a leading role in Connecticut's black temperance society. And while he firmly eschewed colonization schemes (which proposed returning freed American slaves to Africa), he did support efforts to send missionaries to Africa: his sense of African society was colored by a conviction that "benighted" Africans languishing (as he saw it) in semi-savage heathenism.
Over the late-1830s and early-1840s Pennington frequently contributed to the Colored American, and after that paper folded he briefly edited his own paper, the Clarksonian. He also published sermons, addresses, and longer projects. In 1841 he wrote what has been described as the first history of African-America: A Text Book of the Origin and History &c. &c. of the Colored People -- though really it is a treatise on the pre-historical and historical evolution of race and blackness. His most enduring work, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1850), told of his boyhood in slavery and escape to freedom; it became one of the most important American slave narratives.
Pennington's autobiography publicly revealed his slave past (something he kept secret for years) just as a federal Fugitive Slave Law facilitated the recapture of runaways. One year after he published The Fugitive Blacksmith, associates of Pennington arranged formally to buy his freedom from his former master's estate for $150.
By this point Pennington was an important figure abroad as well as the U.S. In 1843 he represented Connecticut at the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London, the first of several international tours in Europe on behalf of the international abolition movement. He continued to minister, educate and agitate for abolition and equal rights up to his death in 1870.
Amistad Activism. Pennington saw the Amistad case as a prime opportunity to further not only the cause of abolition, but of Christian evangelism as well. Although he must have followed the Amistad story closely from the first, Pennington's name does not appear in the public record in connection with the case until early May 1841 -- after the U.S. Supreme Court had freed the Africans -- when he called on African-Americans to organize support for African missions. Subsequently, forty-three delegates from five states convened in Hartford in August, a meeting over which Pennington presided with five of the Amistad Africans in attendance Here the Union Missionary Society formed and Pennington took the helm as its first president. Working through the UMS, Pennington raised funds to pay for the Africans' return voyage and meanwhile recruited African-American missionaries to accompany them. Well after the Gentleman bore the Africans and missionaries away to Sierra Leone, Pennington remained closely engaged. In 1846, the UMS was subsumed by the larger (and largely white-controlled) American Missionary Association and Pennington's role receded a bit, though he served on the AMA's executive board until 1851 and continued to speak on behalf of its mission programs.
Sources: Pennington himself offers the best account of his early life, including his youth as a slave and his escape to the North, in The Fugitive Blacksmith: or, Events in the History of James W.C. Pennington -- one of the most important of the American Antebellum slave narratives. Unfortunately the narrative (published in 1850) breaks off soon after Pennington freed himself.
On his career as an abolitionist minister and teacher, see David O. White, "The Fugitive Blacksmith of Hartford: James W.C. Pennington," Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin , vol. 49 (Winter 1984), pp. 4-29.