previous next

James Poovey.

Slavery having been abolished by a gradual process in Pennsylvania, there were many individuals who still remained in bondage at the period of which I write. Among them was James Poovey, slave to a blacksmith in Pennsylvania. He had learned his master's trade, and being an athletic man, was very valuable. During several winters, he attended an evening school for the free instruction of colored people. He made very slow progress in learning, but by means of unremitting industry and application, he was at last able to accomplish the desire of his heart, which was to read the New Testament for himself.

The fact that colored men born a few years later than himself were free, by the act of gradual emancipation, while he was compelled to remain in bondage, had long been a source of uneasiness; and increase of knowledge by no means increased his contentment. Having come to the conclusion that slavery was utterly unjust, he resolved not to submit to it any longer. In the year 1802, when he was [74] about thirty-three years of age, he took occasion to inform his master that he could read the New Testament. When he observed that he was glad to hear it, James replied, ‘But in the course of my reading I have discovered that it would be a sin for me to serve you as a slave any longer’.

‘Aye?’ said his master. ‘Pray tell me how you made that discovery.’

‘Why, the New Testament says we must do as we would be done by,’ replied James. ‘Now if I submit to let you do by me, as you would not be willing I should do by you, I am as bad as you are. If you will give me a paper that will secure my freedom at the end of seven years, I will serve you faithfully during that time; but I cannot consent to be a slave any longer.’

His master refused to consent to this proposition. James then asked permission to go to sea till he could earn money enough to buy his freedom; but this proposal was likewise promptly rejected.

‘You will get nothing by trying to keep me in slavery,’ said James; ‘for I am determined to be free. I shall never make you another offer.’

He walked off, and his master applied for a warrant to arrest him, and commit him to prison, as a disobedient and refractory slave. When he had been in jail a month, he called to see him, and inquired whether he were ready to return home and go to work. [75]

‘I am at home,’ replied James. ‘I expect to end my days here. I never will serve you again as a slave, or pay you one single cent. What do you come here for? There is no use in your coming.’

The master was greatly provoked by this conduct, and requested the inspectors to have him put in the cells and kept on short allowance, till he learned to submit. Isaac T. Hopper was one of the board; and as the question was concerning a colored man, they referred it to him. Accordingly, the blacksmith sought an interview with him, and said, ‘Jim has been a faithful industrious fellow; but of late he has taken it into his head that he ought to be free. He strolled off and refused to work, and I had him put in prison. When I called to see him he insulted me grossly, and positively refused to return to his business. I have been referred to you to obtain an order to confine him to the cells on short allowance, till he submits.’

Friend Hopper replied, ‘I have been long acquainted with Jim. I was one of his teachers; and I have often admired his punctuality in attending school, and his patient industry in trying to learn.’

‘It has done him no good to learn to read,’ rejoined the master. ‘On the contrary, it has made him worse.’

‘It has made him wiser,’ replied Isaac; ‘but I think it has not made him worse. I have scruples [76] about ordering him to be punished; for he professes to be conscientious about submitting to serve as a slave. I have myself suffered because I could not conscientiously comply with military requisitions. The Society of Friends have suffered much in England on account of ecclesiastical demands. I have thus some cause to know how hateful are persecutors, in the sight of God and of men. I cannot therefore be active in persecuting James, or any other man, on account of conscientious scruples.’

‘It is your duty to have him punished,’ rejoined the blacksmith.

‘I am the best judge of that,’ answered Friend Hopper; ‘and I do not feel justified in compelling him to submit to slavery.’

The blacksmith was greatly exasperated, and went off, saying, ‘I hope to mercy your daughter will marry a negro.’

At the expiration of the term of imprisonment allowed by law, James still refused to return to service, and he was committed for another thirty days. His master called to see him again, and told him if he would return home, and behave well, he should have a new suit of clothes and a Methodist hat. ‘I don't want your new clothes, nor your Methodist hat,’ replied James. ‘I tell you I never will serve you nor any other man as a slave. I had rather end my days in jail.’ [77]

His master finding him so intractable, gave up the case as hopeless. When his second term of imprisonment expired, he was discharged, and no one attempted to molest him. He earned a comfortable living, and looked happy and respectable; but his personal appearance was not improved by leaving his beard unshaved. One day, when Friend Hopper met him in the street, he said, ‘Jim, why dost thou wear that long beard? It looks very ugly.’

‘I suppose it does,’ he replied, ‘but I wear it as a memorial of the Lord's goodness in setting me free; for it was Him that done it.’

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania, United States) (2)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
James (4)
Isaac T. Hopper (3)
James Poovey (2)
Isaac Tatem Hopper (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1802 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: