Absalom Jones was born into U.S. slavery at Sussex, Delaware on November 7, 1756. His mother and father were separated from him when he was sold and they were taken together Pennsylvania. He taught himself to read and was allowed to marry. Remarkably, he purchased his wife's freedom in 1778 in order that their children would be free. By 1784, Jones had purchased his freedom. Three years later, in 1787, with Richard Allen, Jones established the Free African Society, a mutual aid society.
In 1793, the Fugitive Slave Act was established in the United States to aid slave owners in recovering those enslaved persons of African descent who escaped captivity. On January 2, 1800, Jones led a group of free Africans living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in presenting a petition to the U.S. Congress calling for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as to act to end the robust slave trade of Africans to the United States.
The U.S. House voted 85-1 to reject the petition. Who was the lone voice of dissent against slavery? Massachusetts Congressman George Thacher opposed the movement in overwhelming opposition to the petition by his political colleagues. Thacher condemned slavery as "a cancer of immense magnitude, that would sometime destroy the body politic, except a proper legislation should prevent the evil."
|Fugitive Slave Act was enforced by U.S. Marshals|
In contrast, South Carolinia Congressman John Rutledge, Jr. comments in support of the all-white male institution's action defeating the efforts of the anti-slavery petition was that “this new fangled French philosophy of liberty and equality” would not be heard among the men, most of whom were owners of enslaved Africans.
Against the backdrop of a slave society that was formally enforced by a legal system willing to play an active role in policing runaway slaves, in 1816, Rev. Jones would remain an active abolitionist. In 1816, he formed the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church and became the first American of African descent to be ordained as a minister in the Methodist church.
But the early resistance was already on record. The trajectory of change had been marked. After the 1793 Haitian Revolution, rumors of slave rebellions in the U.S. abound as thousands of Haitian refugees began to flood American ports in such places as New Orleans. In fact, one day prior to the presentation of the anti-slavery petition, on January 1, 1800, Gabriel Prosser had conspired to seize Richmond, Virginia with a force of over 1,000 enslaved Africans. The plan was uncovered before it could be unleashed on Richmond's slaveholding residents. Afterwards, public executions and the deportation of nearly a dozen Africans to the West Indies would occur.
Additionally, in 1800, the same year the anti-slavery petition was presented and defeated, two abolitionists were born, Nat Turner and John Brown. While the slave-based economy of the U.S. would continue for many decades afterward, the later military actions of the abolitionists, Turner and Brown, would continue the inevitable trajectory towards freedom that would ultlimately lead to the U.S. Civil War and end of slavery in 1865.
The actions of great leaders like Rev. Absalom Jones must not be forgotten by the generations of African Americans who now enjoy freedom from physical slavery. The works of these great leaders must serve as inspiration and lessons in resistance to all forms of injustice -- however uniquely framed. The struggle for justice in the United States has never been achieved through passive engagement or simply by by petitioning those who wield the hammer of injustice. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said Frederick Douglass, “it never has and it never will.”
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