Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> Titles by James W. C. Pennington >> An newspaper account of James Pennington's escape from slavery

Rev. Dr. Pennington

FROM Frederick Douglass' Paper 26 June 1851.

Note: John Hooker spells the name of Dr. Pennington's master in two different ways in this article: "Tilgham" and "Tilghman." It is not clear which is correct.

MESSRS. EDITORS:—It will probably interest most of your readers to know that the "chattel personal" generally called Rev. Dr. Pennington, is in a fair way of becoming a man.

Dr. P. was born the slave of Frisbie Tilgham, of Hagerstown, Md., by whom he was educated a blacksmith, though an important branch of his education was forgotten—that of teaching him his letters. At the age of twenty-one, he was regularly graduated in the "peculiar institution," and his late master certified to me in writing, which I now have in my possession, and which we may regard as his diploma, that at this time, "Jim was a first-rate blacksmith, and well worth a thousand dollars."

At this age, feeling a desire to see something of the world before he decided where to settle, he one night took hasty leave, and struck for the North Star; and finding, after careful observation, that he could locate himself more advantageously elsewhere, he has never returned to the "paternal roof." His experience of the "Institution" satisfied him that "it was a first-rate place to emigrate from."

After his escape he found protection and assistance in a Quaker family in Pennsylvania, with whom he remained some time, and whose kindness he has since remembered with inexpressible gratitude. Here he began those studies which he has ever since pursued with unremitting ardor and industry, and which have made him a man of intelligence and a scholar. He had stolen from heaven a Promethean fire which made the chattel a living man;[sic]

After pursuing his studies some years, he entered upon the Christian ministry, and as a Congregational preacher was settled some years in Hartford, and since in New York.—His history during the past half of the time is known to the public.

About the year 1844; Mr. P. disclosed to me the fact that he was a fugitive from slavery. He did it under the most solemn injunction of secrecy, and told me at the time that had never before divulged the fact to any living person, except his quaker friends in Pennsylvania—not even to his wife, so great was his fear that by some misadventure, the fact would get abroad and expose him to danger. It was withheld from his wife, however, mainly to save her from disquieting fears. He informed me that in his studies, in his domestic life, and in the discharge of his parochial duties, he was constantly burdened with harassing apprehensions of being seized and carried back to slavery.

The name which he bore was an assumed one: that of the chattel was James Pembroke, or more commonly, the "household word," JIM. He disclosed the fact to me that I might attempt a negotiation with his master for the purchase of his freedom. I accordingly wrote to Mr. Tilghman to ascertain on what terms he would manumit him, taking care to give him no intimation of his present name, or of his residence. Mr. T. soon after wrote me that "with regard to the ungrateful servant of whom" I had written him—as servants were then very high in the market—he could not take less than five hundred dollars; adding in a postscript, "Jim is a first-rate blacksmith, and worth $1,000." As Mr. P. could not raise so large a sum, and as it was an exorbitant price for "a bird in the bush," he decided to pursue the negotiations no farther. Mr. Tilghman died soon after.

The passage of the late Fugitive Slave Law found Mr. P. in Scotland; and the arrests of fugitives under it, of which he received frequent intelligence, filled him with new apprehensions as to his own fate on his return to New York—then immediately contemplated—particularly as he had made the fact public in England that he was a fugitive slave. In these circumstances, he wrote to me for my advice as to the risk, he should incur by returning; and I advised him to remain where he was for the present. Soon after, some friends in the village of Dunse, in Berwickshire, determined to take the matter in hand, and raise the necessary funds to secure his freedom, whatever might be the amount required, and appointed a committee to correspond with me on the subject. This was some four or five months ago, and I have since that time been negotiating with the administrator of Mr. Tilghman, until at last an arrangement was made for his purchase for the sum of $150. The administrator having no power to manumit, it was necessary for him to sell him to a third person, and for the vendee to execute a deed of manumission.—I accordingly directed the bill of sale to be made to me. The money was remitted, and I have to-day received the bill of slave, making over James Pembroke to me as my own property, to all intents and purposes whatsoever.

I remarked at the opening of my letter, that Dr. P. was in "a fair way of becoming a man." He is not yet completely one. The title to him still rests with me, and it remains for me, by deed, under my hand and seal, to "create him a Peer of the Realm." I shall, however, defer the execution of this instrument for half an hour, till I have walked up and down the whole length of Main street, to see how it seems to be a slaveholder—especially to own a Doctor of Divinity. Possibly during the walk I may change my mind and think it best to send him to a sugar plantation.


P. S.—I have returned from my walk. The deed is executed. Jim Pembroke is merged into Rev. Dr. Pennington. The slave is free—the chattel is a man.

I spoke of half an hours walk. I must confess that my return was a little hastened by the thought, which suddenly struck me on my way, that perhaps the "legal relations" I had assumed was a "malum in se." I thought for a moment of going for consolation to one of the "lower law" divines, but feared that it might end in my sending the Rev. Dr. to the auction block.

J. H.

Hartford, Ct., June 3, 1851.

Titles by James W. C. Pennington