Free at Last?

Slavery has been called the “peculiar institution,” but there is nothing strange about a practice that is as old as the human record and as widespread. Slavery has existed in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas—and in Pennsylvania. Even in Western Pennsylvania, as is evidenced by this exhibition, lifetime and term slavery persisted into the 19th century.

You may find slavery’s presence here a bit surprising. Pennsylvania usually is thought of as the land of the Quakers, who originally owned slaves but were among the first to renounce the practice. Indeed, Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed in 1780, gave the commonwealth pride of place in the struggle against slavery. As a leading authority notes, the 1780 act drew “effusive praise” because “never before had any polity, in America or elsewhere, abolished racial slavery by legislative act.”

Given such enlightened, humane, and religious impulses behind the Act of 1780, you may wonder why the exhibition’s title ends with a question mark rather than an exclamation point. Why “Free at Last?” and not “Free at Last!”?

First, Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act did not in fact free anyone. It applied only to children born after the date of the legislation, March 1, 1780, and left parents and older siblings condemned to a lifetime of slavery. Even those born after March 1 were not set free. They were placed in a form of term-slavery known as indentured servitude, which lasted until they reached the age of 28. Also, the Act of 1780 had loopholes of which owners took advantage. Its provisions were not immediately enforced, particularly in Western Pennsylvania, where owners were granted an extension until 1782 to register their slaves and begin complying with the law. Many used that time to sell or transfer their slaves down South, where they and their children would remain lifetime bondsmen. Because the law applied only to children born in Pennsylvania, some owners temporarily transferred pregnant slaves to a southern state. And some owners even developed the illegal practice of indenturing the children of their indentures. To Pennsylvania’s credit, the legislature passed supplementary legislation in 1788 closing these loopholes.

Another reason for the question mark in the exhibition’s title is that indentured servitude was by no means a form of freedom. It had been the fate of many, if not most, White people who came to Pennsylvania—and indeed to the American colonies—in the colonial era. White indentureship resembled slavery except that the term of service typically was limited to four years, and the indentures could seek redress in the courts if their master abused them too severely. By the time the Act of 1780 was passed, White indentures were becoming rare, and they increasingly were being replaced by Blacks, who served longer terms (28 years).

The third reason for the question mark in the exhibition’s title is that freedom for Blacks—even for those who completed their indentures—remained contested and uncertain. White indentures who completed their terms became free Whites, with all the privileges accorded “Whiteness.” Black indentures who completed their terms became so-called free Blacks, with all the burdens associated with “Blackness.”

One such burden was enduring the presumption that they were fugitive slaves. Pennsylvania shared a border with Virginia and Maryland, where slavery was the norm for Blacks and where many considered free Blacks to be simply “slaves without masters” to be watched, feared, regulated—and pursued. Slave catchers scoured border states like Pennsylvania to locate and return runaways to their owners.

Free Blacks, especially in Southwestern Pennsylvania, lived in fear of these men, who had little interest in verifying the legal status of those they captured. For this reason, it was important for free Blacks, especially newcomers with few personal acquaintances, to file with the courts a Certificate of Freedom, such as is portrayed in this exhibition, testifying to their status. This is why many of the documents in this exhibition refer to Blacks from outside the state. The Pennsylvania legislature, between 1820 and 1847, passed laws that sharply curtailed kidnapping, and by the late 1840s, public indignation made it almost impossible for slave catchers to operate in the state. But it still was prudent for newly arrived free Blacks to file such papers.

In summary, the question mark following “Free at Last?” is appropriate because freedom never came to most of Pennsylvania’s slaves. It came to their children, and then only when they reached the age of 28. And, once obtained, freedom required constant vigilance to sustain legal papers. Although Quakers had been condemning slavery since 1688, and other patriots throughout the North American colonies had joined the condemnation by 1780, it took 85 more years and a bloody civil war to silence the powerful who vociferously defended the practice. After the war’s end, no person of moral and ethical standing has ever defended it again.

The documents, stories, and images, and sounds in this exhibition captured those years of transition from what at one point was morally acceptable to what at another was morally abhorrent.