The unassuming blue marker stands at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Wister Street in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Few who pass by are aware of the history commemorated by the marker — the first ever anti-slavery protest written by white men.
In 1688, four German Quakers staged the first free anti-slavery protest in the Americas, which preceded Pennsylvania’s first abolition law by 92 years.
Enslaved Africans were first brought to the New World in 1619. Slaves themselves protested their bondage from the beginning. From 1685 to 1687, only one year before the Germantown protest, Jamaican slaves staged a massive revolt that proved especially fearsome and troubling to northern colonists.
Although possibly influenced by the Jamaican revolts, the writers of the Germantown protest, mainly sought to express their political frustration with Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn. Pennsylvania was founded by Penn in 1682, as a safe place for Quakers to live and practice their faith.
In 1684, Penn granted German Quakers a tract of land to start their own society. This township eventually became the neighborhood of Germantown, according to sources found in the archives of the Germantown Historical Society. However, Germans did not have citizenship rights in Pennsylvania until seven years later in 1691. Instead, the colony was ruled by an oligarchy of Anglican Quakers, including Penn, many of whom owned slaves. The German population felt threatened by slave labor both economically and spiritually.
Quaker Society meets
On April 16, 1688, four members of Germantown’s Quaker Society convened at their meetinghouse, near the current-day intersection of Germantown and Wister, and drafted the first petition on American soil denouncing slavery. The names of these men were Garret Hendricks, Derick de Graeff, Francis Daniel Pastorius and Abraham up Den Graeff (the Graeffs were brothers, but their signatures on the document spell their names differently).
“Now tho they are black we cannot conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones. There is a saying that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are,” reads the original petition transcript. “But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against.”
Lisa Jarvinen, an associate professor of history at La Salle University, said the document links Germantown to the history of slavery in the United States. “It is the first place in the British, North American colony where there was a formal protest against slavery,” she said.
Jarvinen believes the debate over slaves is also important to understanding the time period.
Not the proper time
At the time, the protest was virtually ignored, just as the sign that commemorates it is largely ignored by passerby today. When the protest was brought up at the monthly, quarterly and yearly Quaker meetings, each congregation stated that it was not the proper time for the Quaker community to decide on such a matter.
Fifteen years later, the protest was continued by Chester Quakers who “declare[d] dissatisfaction” with the owning of slaves. Throughout the 1700s, more Pennsylvania Quakers advocated for the abolition of slavery until a state law passed in 1780 enacted the gradual emancipation of all slaves in Pennsylvania. One hundred and seventy-five years after the Germantown protest Lincoln finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.
Back at the corner of Germantown and Wister Avenues, the route 23 bus rolls down the cobblestone street, depositing riders who hurry to their next destination, paying no attention to the small blue sign. The underlying historical significance of the sign has largely been forgotten by the residents of Germantown, but it represents an event that was the catalyst in a long and — and bloody — march toward racial equality.
Copies of the transcript of the 1688 protest and other related material can be found in the archives of the Germantown Historical Society.