Thursday, November 10, 2011

From Fugitive to National Treasure

American to the Backbone, is the compelling story of The Life of James W.C. Pennington. Pennington is the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists, a historical biography by Christopher Webber, who is himself an ordained member of the Episcopal clergy (NY: Pegasus,2011).

James Pembroke (aka James W.C. Pennington) decided at about 20 that he could no longer be a slave, but he had no alternative vision as to what or who he could be. He knew what he could NOT BE and fled to safety. Circumstances led him to William Wright, a Quaker, where Pembroke requested work, Wright invited him in with this life-changing sentence: “Well, come in then and we will talk about it.” That, says the author, was the first of five transforming moments for young Pembroke.

That invitation at Wright's door introduced Pembroke to his first plenteous lunch in many days and an exploration of his life as a human being, no longer simply Master and machine. Webber describes a second defining moment when Wright challenged Pembroke by introducing him to stories of Phyllis Wheatley, Francis Williams, and Benjamin Banneker, black people who demonstrated an ability to be as creative as their white counterparts. That opened a new window for the first time to young James.

The third transforming moment came in a Brooklyn schoolroom when Pennington) discovered there were 700,000 children in slavery. This pointed him in a new for his life, like a child that runs off to share a new gift.

A fourth transforming moment came when Samuel Cox introduced James Pennington into the Christian Church. His conversion brought membership in a New Light Presbyterian Church and planted his feet upon a confidant path that believed God’s purpose would prevail as a powerful remedy over the discouragements he would encounter in a culture that was against him because of the color of his skin.

A final and fifth transforming moment resulted through the Negro Convention Movement, in which Pennington became a significant figure. Encountering a strong movement to colonize blacks back in Africa and elsewhere, Pennington knew he was a
3rd generation American slave and “American to the backbone: for better or worse, he was part and parcel of America’s future.

A statement Pennington made to a Scottish audience while traveling abroad, declared:

“The colored population of the United States have no destiny separate
from that of the nation in which they form an integral part. Our destiny
is bound up with that of America.Her ship is ours; her pilot is ours; her
storms are ours; her calms are ours, if she breaks upon any rock, we break
with her. If we, born in America, cannot live upon the same soil upon
terms of equality with the descendants of Scotchmen, Englishmen, Irish-
men,Frenchmen, Germans, Hungarians, Greeks, and Poles, then the fundamental
theory of America fails and falls to the ground”
(Emphasis added).

Nineteen-year-old James Pembroke fled his slave quarters six miles south of Hagerstown, MD in 1827. Although a skilled blacksmith, he remained an illiterate fugitive, yet a curiously determined young man. He quickly became a leading black spokesman against slavery. Ten years after his escape from slavery, Pennington made his way to Yale, became a leader in the Presbyterian Church, a world traveler, and the recipient of a well-deserved honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Pennington wrote the first-ever “History of the Colored People” as well as a careful study of the moral basis for civil disobedience, which would be echoed decades later by Gandhi and M. L. King.

The struggles for human rights versus slavery is one I find especially intriguing, and the thing that challenges me most is that much of the argument between abolitionists and slavers is readily framed in similar arguments yet today between the political powers of the haves and have-nots. I don't find the pre-Civil War era that much different today, with our political struggles between Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, et al.

The Rev. Dr. Pennington became a distinguished pastor, human rights advocate, and academic of international acclaim. I found so much about him that I deeply admire, especially his incisive arguments based on a solid moral defense, anchored in God. Interestingly enough, his profoundly moral insights convinced no more people then, than do such arguments today.

We work up a real sweat over a political debate, but ground it in a moral foundation and commercial pragmatism will win every time. No wonder Jesus said there would always be wars and rumors of wars . . .
From Warner’s World,,
a new book well worth your time.

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