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The Most Famous Abolitionist You Never Heard Of: The Story of Thomas Shipley

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 21, 2024 3:02 am

The Most Famous Abolitionist You Never Heard Of: The Story of Thomas Shipley

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 21, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Thomas Shipley always sprang into action to defend black men and women from abuses and professional kidnappers. He infiltrated murderous mobs, warned would-be victims, and testified against ringleaders throughout his life.

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To learn more, visit JackMillerCenter.org. Let's take a listen to Elliot Treago. Thomas Shipley is the most famous abolitionist you've never heard of. A white American living in Philadelphia during an age of slavery, Shipley's lifelong devotion to freedom made him a beloved icon within the abolitionist community.

His tireless efforts helped free hundreds of black Americans captured by slave owners and kidnappers, while his lobbying of the Pennsylvania State Legislature protected thousands more. Despite his pacifist upbringing as a Quaker, Shipley did not hesitate to throw himself into carnage, whether that meant testifying against slave owners, pursuing slave catchers, outwitting kidnappers, or charging headlong into a vicious race riot. One of his eulogist and fellow abolitionist friends, Isaac Parrish, christened him, So who was Thomas Shipley, and why did black Americans consider him their most sincere and active friend? Born in Philadelphia in 1787 and orphaned by age six, Shipley was adopted into the household of fellow Quaker Isaac Bartram, who had married Thomas's older sister. He attended boarding school in Westchester, Pennsylvania, and throughout his youth possessed an uncommon perseverance, love of reading, and peaceful disposition.

Upon leaving school, he apprenticed to the hardware business, and later, he and his brother-in-law opened their own hardware store on Market Street in Philadelphia. At age 20, Shipley joined the renowned Pennsylvania Abolition Society, an activist group of wealthy and middle-class Quakers devoted to protecting and emancipating black Americans. Although Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation act in 1780, black Americans still faced constant harassment and violence, especially in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania abolitionists worked in close conjunction with the black community, serving as free legal counsel, investigating slave owners' claims, and tracking the kidnappers who prowled the city in search of vulnerable black Americans. While Shipley attended abolitionist meetings, took copious notes, and served on the organization's Board of Education for Black Youth, his role as the leader of the acting committee made him an abolitionist legend. As what might be best understood as an abolitionist enforcer group, the acting committee consisted of young white abolitionist men who met monthly to discuss problems plaguing black life in Philadelphia. Led by Shipley, the acting committee investigated slave owners' claims and the activities of professional kidnappers by corroborating evidence, pursuing leads, speaking with informants, referring cases to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's roster of exceptional lawyers, and even helping accused fugitives escape.

Most importantly, Thomas Shipley's work with the acting committee helped lay the foundation for what became known as the Underground Railroad. In 1820, Shipley and the acting committee spearheaded Pennsylvania state legislation that increased the penalties for kidnapping free blacks to sell down South. Six years later, Shipley traveled to the state capital of Harrisburg to lobby legislators to prevent influential Maryland slave owners from turning Pennsylvania into a slave-catcher's paradise. Maryland representatives feared that Pennsylvanians might not return supposed fugitives, especially because of abolitionists like Shipley and his white and black allies. While Pennsylvania lawmakers made concessions to Maryland in the resulting legislation, namely by agreeing that state officials could issue removals of fugitive slaves, the combined efforts of Shipley and the black abolitionists Richard Allen and Stephen Gloucester in Harrisburg convinced legislators to include an amendment disallowing slave owner testimony in fugitive slave cases. Thomas Shipley was also one of the earliest proponents of immediate as opposed to gradual emancipation. Abolitionist heroes like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison espoused what contemporaries called immediate-ism, the immediate, uncompensated, and total emancipation of enslaved black Americans. Some Pennsylvania abolitionists were wary of Douglass and Garrison, preferring to take a gradual course in eliminating the institution by petitioning influential politicians.

This new wave of abolitionists, labeled radical by their enemies, viewed these conservative methods of emancipation as inferior to their method of constant and unequivocal agitation on the slavery question. Shipley's experiences in the acting committee and with the black community revealed to him a pressing need to eliminate slavery in all its forms immediately, for hardly a day went by in which he did not personally tend to the needs of an accused fugitive slave or the heartbroken family of a black kidnapping victim. As a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Shipley was present for the organization's first convention held in Philadelphia in December 1833. This new society, comprised of immediate-ists, pledged to organize anti-slavery societies, if possible, in every city, town, and village in America, send forth agents to lift up the voice of remonstrance, of warning, of entreaty, and of rebuke, and circulate, unsparingly and extensively, anti-slavery tracts and periodicals.

Over the next two years, this group of immediate abolitionists sent over one million abolitionist tracts, periodicals, and letters across the Union, infuriating slave owners and their northern allies. Throughout the 1830s, Shipley and his black and white allies in Philadelphia endured the wrath of pro-slavery forces within the city. Two major race riots erupted there in 1834 and 1835, and in both cases, white Philadelphians burned most of black Philadelphia to the ground. In the words of one eyewitness, The 1838 riot began after a black man from Cuba named Juan tried to kill the man who kidnapped him.

News of the attempted murder soon spread across Philadelphia, giving many working-class whites a pretext to attack black Philadelphians. As vengeful whites ransacked black Philadelphia, mercilessly beating random black men, women, and children, and setting fire to their homes, Thomas Shipley sprang into action. Disguising himself as a rioter, Shipley mingled with them both to get a clear sense of their next target and to learn their names and faces to later report them to the authorities.

Sure enough, the mob caught wind of a group of 60 black men holed up in Benezet Hall, a meeting place named after the famous abolitionist Anthony Benezet. Aware of their plans and seeing them brandishing their clubs and swords, Shipley broke off from the group and sprinted to the hall. When he arrived, several black men came out ready to fight, thinking that Shipley was the leader of the mob. As he raised his voice to the men, the effect was electric, according to one witness, because the whole throng knew him as their friend. Heeding his warning and trusting in Shipley, the men escaped as the mayor and police officers dispersed the mob.

Later, Shipley testified against the ringleaders of the riot, many of whom were sentenced to prison. Tragically, Thomas Shipley died a year later, mere months after being elected president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. When news of his death reached the black community, hundreds of black Philadelphians gathered at his house, hoping to catch one last glimpse of the man who dedicated his life to protecting them.

Thousands more black Americans attended his funeral at the Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia and watched as six black pallbearers lowered his coffin into the ground. While relatively unknown to Americans today, Thomas Shipley's legacy informs much of our views of abolitionism in general. In this sense, all Americans already know Thomas Shipley. We already know Thomas Shipley through the Underground Railroad, a movement spawned from his courageous collaborations with white and black allies. We recognize Thomas Shipley and Americans' dedication to the immediate and total emancipation of enslaved Americans. And we already know Thomas Shipley because, in the words of the black abolitionist Robert Purvis, the principles of Shipley are American principles, the most important of which is the practical recognition of natural and equal rights amongst men. Although he did not live to see the end of slavery, Shipley's important work forwarded the realization of the fundamental dignity and equality of all human beings. And a terrific job on the editing, storytelling, and production by our own Greg Hengler, and a special thanks to Jack Miller Center's editorial officer and historian, Elliot Drago. And boy, we got to learn a lot about the most famous abolitionist you never heard of, Thomas Shipley. And that scene, that funeral scene, six black pallbearers lowering his casket into the ground, thousands of black Americans attending. And all because this white Christian abolitionist, and my goodness, the number of Christians behind the abolition movement here and abroad, Wilberforce in England, is a story that must be told at a considerable cost to themselves and their livelihoods.

The story of Thomas Shipley, the story of the abolition movement, here on Our American Stories. Ready to celebrate International Women's Day? M&M's and IHART present Women Take the Mic, sharing empowering stories of women supporting and celebrating each other. And of course, there is a smooth and creamy companion for your listening pleasure, peanut butter M&M's. Because they're just another way to help treat yourself in situations where you deserve a little added delight, like listening to your favorite podcast.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-03-21 04:25:18 / 2024-03-21 04:30:13 / 5

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