Who was James Pennington?
The Reverend Dr. James WC Pennington was a prominent 19th century Black abolitionist with an international reputation for devotion to God and the cause of freedom and equality. He published widely in the Black press of the day, and he authored an autobiography and the first history of Africans in America. He was pastor of the Talcott Street Congregational Church (which is now Faith Congregational Church) in Hartford, Connecticut 1840-47, 1853, and 1856-57.
Born to an enslaved family in Maryland, Pennington (then Pembroke) escaped to Pennsylvania where he was taken in by a Quaker family who taught him to read and write. He moved to New York, where he furthered his education and became an educator, pastor, and frequent contributor to the Black press. As a young pastor, he officiated the wedding of Frederick and Anna Douglass and attended divinity classes at Yale, where he was allowed to audit but not enroll as a student.
Talcott Street Congregational Church was built in 1826 on the corner of Talcott and Market Streets in Hartford, seven years after the Black congregants formed the African Religious Society to escape the indignities of separate treatment in the white dominated churches. Pennington’s call to the church coincided with the trial of the Amistad captives at the nearby State House, and he and his congregation assisted the captives throughout their stay in Connecticut, eventually raising funds for their return to Africa and sending several Talcott Church members with them. He also taught in the African School in the basement of Talcott Church, a school for Black children founded by the congregants in 1830 because of poor treatment of their children in Hartford schools. Historically significant congregants during his tenure were James Mars, Ann Plato, Augustus Washington, and Rebecca Primus.
Pennington gained an international reputation through his writing and his prominent roles in anti-slavery conventions, traveling to the United Kingdom, Europe, and Jamaica. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Heidelberg in Germany. In his speeches, sermons, and articles, Pennington advocated for abolition, Black education, voting rights (Black men’s suffrage was removed in Connecticut by the 1818 Constitution), and equality for all in churches and society. A precursor to Rosa Parks, Pennington was arrested in 1859 on a New York street car for refusing to sit in the Negro section.
As his reputation grew, Pennington became increasingly fearful of being discovered as a “runaway slave” and returned to his “owner.” His congregation in Hartford – indeed, even his wife – did not know that he was legally the property of a Frisby Tilghman of Maryland. Pennington shared his secret with his personal friend, the lawyer John Hooker, who raised funds and negotiated the purchase of Pennington’s freedom at the cost of $500. Pennington purchased his freedom from Hooker for a dollar. In 1851, he was finally free.