January 18, 2012

"You Had Better Stay at Home and Mind Your Own Business, Than to Come Here and Make a Fuss"

These angry words were shouted by a group of women in Philadelphia the morning of Friday, May 18, 1838.  Their "advice" was directed at members of the second annual Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women who were making their way on foot to the school-room of member Sarah Pugh for the last day of convention business.

Much of the convention activity of May 15th-17th had taken place at Pennsylvania Hall, an impressive building constructed with funds raised by female abolitionists in Philadelphia and completed in time for the convention.

Illustration from History of Pennsylvania Hall Which Was Destroyed by a
Mob on the 17th of May, 1838 (Philadelphia:  Merrihew and Gunn, 1838).

Two hundred and three delegates as well as 75 corresponding members attended the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in 1838.  These women were both white and free-black, representing female anti-slavery societies from Maine to South Carolina.  A large number of them were Quakers, including Lucretia Mott, a founding member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and Abby Kelley from Lynn, Massachusetts.

As the business of the convention was being conducted, there were signs of unrest in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia was located just 40 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line and usually was inhabited by large numbers of southerners who frequented the city for commerical purposes.  As the convention progressed, placards began to appear detailing the objectives of male and female abolitionists meeting in the city.  Some of these placards called for those who opposed the immediate abolition of slavery and who valued existing "property rights" to gather at Pennsylvania Hall to disperse the people meeting there.

A large mob of men and boys formed to disrupt the speeches given at Pennsylvania Hall the evening of May 16th.  The next night the mob was even larger and more unruly.  Those attending the convention were finally asked by the Mayor of Philadelphia, who refused to call in the militia to quell the angry mob, to vacate Pennsylvania Hall and to hand over the keys.  When those inside left the premises, the crowd outside breached the doors with axes and wooden beams, gathered flammable materials in the center of the auditorium, and set it ablaze by opening the gas jets.  The firefighters who responded protected adjoining buildings but let Pennsylvania Hall burn without intervening.

Illustration from History of Pennsylvania Hall Which Was Destroyed by a Mob
On the 17th of May, 1838 (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Gunn, 1838).

Deborah Simmons Coates was among the women delegates walking to Sarah Pugh's school-room the next morning.  Deborah was a Quaker minister and, along with her husband Lindley Coates, was an avid promoter of the anti-slavery cause and an operator on the Underground Railroad in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Her husband Lindley was among the founders of the national American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and served as its President in 1840.  Both were well-known for their commitment and activism on behalf of the anti-slavery movement.

Deborah's feelings about slavery were revealed in more subtle ways than her public participation in abolitionist meetings and conventions.  This is demonstrated by a quilt she made that is now part of the collection of The Heritage Center of Lancaster County.

Photograph courtesy of The Heritage Center of Lancaster County.

This quilt, probably made between 1840-1865, measures 96 1/2 X 89 inches and is comprised of blocks in a pattern sometimes called Birds in the Air by today's quilters.  These blocks are made of silk fabric in muted tones set on point.  At some time in the past, the quilt was cut in half lengthwise and the resultant inner edges were bound.  These halves were rejoined when they passed to a later descendant.  The binding of the inner edges was removed to join the two pieces, revealing two halves of a stamped image of a slave in chains that had been almost totally hidden by the binding.  Beneath the image are the words:  "Deliver me from the oppression of man."

Photograph courtesy of The Heritage Center of Lancaster County.

Images such as this were common symbols of the anti-slavery movement in this country, most of them based on an image of a man in chains designed by the English abolitionist Josiah Wedgewood for an abolitionist society in London in the 18th century.  Wedgewood's image carried the words: "Am I Not a Man and a Brother."  A similar image of a slave woman was also popular in this country, bearing the words:  "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister."

Deborah Simmons Coates' quilt is just one of many made by Quaker women who overtly supported the emancipation of slaves in this country and worked hard as organizers, speakers, writers, fund-raisers and convention-goers to support this cause.


Brackman, Barbara.  "Deborah Simmons Coates: Remembering the Underground Railroad."  McCalls Quilting, The Art of Vintage Quilts (December 2007): 35-37.

Brown, Iva V.  "'Am I Not a Woman and a Sister', The Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, 1837-1839."  History of the American Abolitionist Movement, A Bibliography of Scholarly Articles, Abolitionism and Issues of Race and Gender, John R. McKivigan, ed.  New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.

History of Pennsylvania Hall Which Was Destroyed by a Mob on the 17th of May, 1838.  Philadelphia: Merrihew and Gunn, 1838.

Proceedings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women Held in Philadelphia, May 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th, 1838.  The Cornell University Library Digital Collection.

Report of a Delegate to the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women Held in Philadelphia, May, 1838; Including An Account of Other Meetings Held in Pennsylvania Hall, and of the Riot; Addressed to the Fall River Female Anti-Slavery Society, and Published by Its Request.  The Cornell University Library Digital Collections.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write all this, it's so interesting!