People & Events
1713 - 1784
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When Anthony Benezet died in 1784 at the age of seventy-one, 400 of Philadelphia's black citizens turned out to mourn his passing. Known for his humility and tireless devotion to the education and uplift of the black population, this gentle Quaker was known as "the single most prolific antislavery writer and the most influential advocate of the Negro's rights on either side of the Atlantic."
Benezet immigrated to Philadelphia in 1731 and became a schoolmaster, teaching a day school for Quaker children, and tutoring slave and free blacks in the same subjects at night. He was one of the few white men of his era who did not subscribe to the theory of black inferiority, nor to the idea that Africa was a barbaric continent, citing a variety of sources to document the notable cultures that it had produced.
Unlike many abolitionists, Benezet spent time among Philadelphia's blacks; he knew and was known by most of the black population. In 1767 Benezet wrote that he, as "teacher of a school...for many years, had opportunity of knowing the temper and genius of the Africans," and could "with truth and sincerity declare amongst them as a great a variety of talents, equally capable of improvement, as amongst a like number of whites."
It was largely due to Benezet's efforts that the Quakers established and supported a school for free blacks in 1773. Over the next six years, the school served about 250 black students, accepting enslaved children when there were not enough free children to fill the classes.
With friend and fellow Quaker John Woolman, Benezet convinced the Philadelphia [Quaker] Yearly Meeting to take an official position against the practice of buying and selling slaves, and eventually to disown Quakers who would not comply. It was Benezet who issued the call for the first meeting of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1775, and he assisted black Philadelphians in their petitions to defeat an amendment to the 1780 gradual emancipation act that would return unregistered blacks to slavery.
For twenty-five years, Benezet wrote and published numerous letters and pamphlets in opposition to slavery, and persuaded others to do likewise. His correspondents included such notables as Benjamin Franklin, Granville Sharp and John Wesley.
Even after his death, Benezet continued to have a profound effect on his contemporaries: the appearance of his ghost in a dream prompted slaveowner Benjamin Rush to devote himself to the cause of abolition.
Benezet Instructing Colored Children
Founding of Pennsylvania Abolition Society
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