People & Events
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A grand structure that was once called "one of the most commodious and splendid buildings in the city," Pennsylvania Hall was constructed to provide a forum for discussing "the evils of slavery," as well as other matters "not of an immoral character." The building was opened on the morning of May 14, 1838 -- a Monday. On Thursday evening, after four days of dedication ceremonies and abolition-related meetings, the building was burned to the ground by an angry mob.
It was precisely because abolitionists had such a difficult time finding space for their meetings that plans for the Hall were initiated. A joint-stock company was formed to finance the construction. Two thousand people -- abolitionsists, mechanics and other workers, women, and prominent citizens -- bought shares in the company that sold for $20 apiece. Those who could not afford to buy shares donated materials and labor. Forty thousand dollars was raised to construct the building.
On the first floor of Pennsylvania Hall were lecture and committee rooms, as well as a bookstore that sold abolitionist publications. The second and third floors was devoted to a large hall, with galleries on the third floor. Above the stage in the hall was the motto: "Virtue, Liberty and Independence."
The first event scheduled was a dedication ceremony, during which letters from Gerrit Smith, Theodore Weld, and John Quincy Adams were read. Adams, who had by then already served as president of the United States, summed up the general sentiment of those in the hall:
I learnt with great satisfaction. . . that the Pennsylvania Hall Association have erected a large building in your city, wherein liberty and equality of civil rights can be freely discussed, and the evils of slavery fearlessly portrayed. . . . I rejoice that , in the city of Philadelphia, the friends of free discussion have erected a Hall for its unrestrained exercise.
The sentiment outside the building, however, was markedly different. On Tuesday morning notices were found throughout the city. The notices called upon "citizens who entertain a proper respect for the right of property," and instructed them to "interfere, forcibly if they must, and prevent the violation of these pledges [the preservation of the Constitution of the United States], heretofore held sacred."
Despite these notices and the growing crowd outside of the hall, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women met, as scheduled, that morning. On the morning of the following day, men began to gather around the building, "prowling about the doors, examining the gas-pipes, and talking in an 'incendiary' manner to groups which they collected around them in the street." Later in the day they became more unruly, and during the evening's meeting, while William Lloyd Garrison was introducing Maria W. Chapman to the over 3,000 reformers present, a mob broke into the building, shouting. The mob soon left, only to disrupt the meeting from outside. Rocks came crashing in through the windows while Chapman spoke; the shouting from outside overwhelmed her voice. Angelina Grimké Weld next took the podium. Several times during the meeting the audience rose to leave, only to be persuaded to stay by Weld and other speakers. Undetered by the loud and disruptive mob, Weld's speech went on for over an hour. In a display of solidarity and in order to protect the black women, whites and blacks walked out of the hall arm in arm. They were still met by a barrage of insults and rocks.
The mob returned on the following day. Scheduled were more meetings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, who refused to comply with the Mayor's request to restrict the meeting to white women only. The building's managers, fearing that the mob posed a threat, handed the keys over to the mayor. After locking the doors the mayor announced to the crowd that the remaining meetings had been cancelled. The crowd cheered as he walked away. Soon after the crowd broke into the building, destroying the interior and setting fires. The mayor returned with the police, but by now the mob was out of control -- any attempts the police made to restore order were met by attacks. By nine o'clock the fires had spread, engulfing the building in flames. Firefighters arrived at the scene but sprayed only the structures that surrounded Pennsylvania Hall. When one unit tried spraying the new building, its men became the target of the other units' hoses. With no one working to save Pennsylvania Hall, it was soon completely destroyed.
The riotous mob continued to strike over the following days, setting a shelter for black orphans on fire and damaging a black church.
An official report blamed the abolitionists for the riots, claiming that they incited violence by upsetting the citizens of Philadelphia with their views and for encouraging "race mixing."
Angelina Grimké Weld's speech at Pennsylvania Hall
David Blight on Pennsylvania Hall
William Scarborough on the South and the abolitionist movement
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