National Abolition
Hall of Fame
and Museum
National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum
James W.C. Pennington



James W.C. Pennington



James W.C. Pennington (1808-1870) was born in slavery in Maryland and although he was trained as a carpenter and blacksmith he was not taught to read or write.  At the age of nineteen he escaped from slavery in an eight-day ordeal during which he was twice captured and twice escaped.  He finally found his way to the home of a Quaker just across the Pennsylvania border who took him in and began his education.  Moving on to another Quaker home nearer to Philadelphia and then to Brooklyn, he found work as carriage man for a wealthy merchant in a city where educational opportunities were available.  Taking advantage of night schools and using his wages to pay for tutors, Pennington progressed so rapidly that in just five years he was hired to teach in a school for black children in Newtown, Long Island.


In 1829, Pennington attended and took part in the first Negro National Convention in Philadelphia.  He would continue to be a leading figure in the Negro Convention movement and became presiding officer of its convention in 1853.


While living in Brooklyn, Pennington, who had never heard of Jesus when he escaped from slavery, had become a Christian and a candidate for ordination.  Seven years after escaping from slavery, he was accepted as the first black student at the Yale Divinity School although he was not allowed to be listed as a student or to borrow books from the library and was required to sit in the back row at lectures.  Nevertheless he was accepted for ordination in the Congregational Church, served briefly in Newtown, and then was called to serve a black congregation in Hartford, Connecticut.  While still in Newtown he was called on to perform the wedding ceremony for Frederick Douglass and his fiancee. In Hartford, Pennington  became involved in the case of the Amistad captives and organized the first black missionary society to support them on their return to Africa.  It was also in the Hartford years (1840-48) that Pennington wrote the first black history, traveled in Jamaica to see a functioning black republic, and was chosen to serve as a delegate to the Second International Conference on Slavery in London as well as to an International Peace Conference.


In 1848, Pennington was called to the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Manhattan but a year later, because of increasing pressure to return fugitive slaves to the south, he was persuaded to move to Great Britain until his freedom could be purchased.  For almost two years, Pennington traveled in Britain and Europe on behalf of abolition and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Heidelberg.  Returning to Manhattan he helped organize a Legal Rights Association to work toward equal access to the New York City streetcar system.  In the ensuing struggle, Pennington was thrown off a streetcar himself.  He lost his own case but the LRA appealed another case to the New York State Supreme Court and won.  New York City street cars were ordered to give equal access to all.


Leaving the Shiloh Church in 1858, Pennington traveled to speak for abolition and, during the Civil War, to encourage black men to enlist in the army.  After serving a church in Natchez, Mississippi, during Reconstruction, Pennington served briefly in Portland, Maine, and then moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to work with freed slaves and their children and died there in 1870.


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