Short Biographies of the Principles Whose Stories we will tell

Henry “Box” Brown (c.1816–after 1889) was a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom by arranging to have himself mailed to Philadelphia abolitionists in a wooden crate after 33 years of slavery. For a short time he became a noted abolitionist speaker and later a showman, but later lost the support of the abolitionist community, notably Frederick Douglass, who wished Brown had kept quiet about his escape so that more slaves could have escaped using similar means.

John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was a white American abolitionist who believed armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. During the 1856 conflict in Kansas, Brown commanded forces at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie. Brown’s followers also killed five slavery supporters at Pottawatomie. In 1859, Brown led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry that ended with his capture. Brown’s trial resulted in his conviction and a sentence of death by hanging.

John Pierre Burr (abt 1792 – 4 April 1864) was a community leader in PhiladelphiaPennsylvania, active in education and civil rights for African Americans. He also became an abolitionist and an active member of the Underground Railroad. He was active on issues of civil rights and helped organize the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, serving on its Vigilance Committee to directly aid fugitive slaves. He was the natural child of Mary Emmons, an East Indian servant born in Calcutta, and politician Aaron Burr Jr.

Cyrus Bustill(1732-1806 was born enslaved in Burlington, New Jersey, the son of European American attorney Samuel Bustill and one of his enslaved Negros. Samuel Bustill sold his son to Quaker Thomas Prior, a baker who taught Cyrus his trade. Prior liberated Bustill in 1769, making him one of the 104 enslaved negroes manumitted by Friends in Burlington Quarterly Meeting of Friends from 1763—1796. As a freed enslaved negro, Bustill successfully operated a baking business for many years. During the Revolutionary War he baked bread in Burlington for the Continental troops. Later he moved to Philadelphia, where he became a leader of that city’s black community. In 1787, he became one of the founders of Philadelphia’s Free African Society. He was one of the first to contribute funds for starting St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church in 1792. The Bustill family was also actively involved in the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia. In 1797 Bustill retired from his business and built a house at Third and Green Streets, where he opened a school for African American children in 1803.

Octavius Valentine Catto (February 22, 1839 – October 10, 1871) was a black educator, intellectual, and civil rights activist in Philadelphia. He became principal of male students at the Institute for Colored Youth, where he had also been educated. Catto became known as a top cricket and baseball player in 19th-century Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a martyr to racism, as he was shot and killed in election-day violence in Philadelphia, where ethnic Irish of the Democratic Party, which was anti-Reconstruction and had opposed black suffrage, attacked black men to prevent their voting for Republican candidates.

Ellen Craft (1826–1891) and William Craft (September 25, 1824 – January 29, 1900) were slaves from Macon, Georgia in the United States who escaped to the North in December 1848 by traveling openly by train and steamboat, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. She posed as a white male planter and he as her personal servant. Their daring escape was widely publicized, making them among the most famous of fugitive slaves. Threatened by slave catchers in Boston after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Crafts escaped to England, where they lived for nearly two decades and reared five children. The Crafts lectured publicly about their escape. In 1860 they published a written account, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery.

Charlotte Bridges Forten Grimké (August 17, 1837 – July 23, 1914) was an African-American anti-slavery activist, poet, and educator. She grew up in a prominent abolitionist family in Philadelphia, taught school for years, including during the war to freedmen in South Carolina. Later in life she married Francis James Grimké, a Presbyterian minister who led a major church in Washington, DC for decades. He was a nephew of the abolitionist Grimké sisters and active in civil rights. Her diaries written before the end of the Civil War have been published in numerous editions in the 20th century as The Journal of Charlotte Forten; the work is significant as a record of the life of a free black woman in the North in the antebellum years.

James Forten (September 2, 1766 – March 4, 1842) used his wealth and standing to work for civil rights for African Americans in the city and nationally. Beginning in 1817, he opposed the colonization movements, particularly that of the American Colonization Society. He persuaded William Lloyd Garrison to an anti-colonization position, and helped fund his newspaper The Liberator (1831-1865), frequently publishing letters on public issues. He became vice-president of the biracial American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833, and worked for national abolition of slavery, and for black education and temperance. His large family was also devoted to these causes, and two daughters married the Purvis brothers, who used their wealth as leaders for abolition

Lear Green, a house slave in Baltimore, who escaped by hiding inside an old sailor’s chest. For 18 hours, the small trunk was her home, as Baltimore Quakers helped her get aboard a steamer bound for Philadelphia. From there, she would go to Elmira, New York where a man named William Adams, with whom she’d fallen in love, awaited her – with the preacher who would marry them. The two had only three years together before Green died, but she died a free woman, married to a man she loved.

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1824–March 31, 1876), dubbed “The Black Swan”, was an African-American singer considered the best-known black concert artist of her time. Greenfield was born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi, but was adopted by a Philadelphia Quaker as an infant. She studied music as a child although it was forbidden by the Quakers with whom she associated. In April 1853, she went to London under the patronage of the Duchess of Sutherland and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Greenfield was taught by Queen Victoria’s Chapel Royal organist, George Smart. She gave a command performance for the queen at Buckingham Palace on May 10, 1854; she was the first black performer to perform before royalty.

Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873) and Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879), known as the Grimké sisters, were 19th-century Southern American Quakers, educators and writers who were early advocates of abolitionism and women’s rights. Throughout their lives, they traveled throughout the North, lecturing about their first hand experiences with slavery on their family’s plantation. Among the first American women to act publicly in social reform movements, they received abuse and ridicule for their abolitionist activity. They both realized that women would have to create a safe space in the public arena to be effective reformers.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was a pioneering journalist, author of fiction and poetry, and a professional lecturer, Frances Harper has had a remarkable life. Active in abolitionism, suffrage, and the temperance movement, she lived long enough to see her efforts rewarded. She gets credit for introducing the tradition of African American protest poetry. Famous during her lifetime, Harper used her prestige and writings to fight racism and also make strong feminist statements.

Isaac Tatem Hopper (December 3, 1771, May 7, 1852) was an American abolitionist who was active in Philadelphia. In her biography of Isaac Hopper, L. Maria Child dates his first act of helping an escaped slave to shortly after his arrival in Philadelphia (1787); she records an estimate that he assisted over 1,000 fugitives during his forty years of residence in Philadelphia. He was elected to membership with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1796, and soon gained a reputation for devising cunning legal maneuvers to obtain freedom for colored people. Hopper also volunteered as an overseer at the Benezet school for colored children, a teacher for colored adults, a fire-fighter, a Guardian of the Poor for the City of Philadelphia, and an Inspector of the Public Prisons; he served on Friends’ committees to assist the poor, work with Native Americans, and counsel Friends who refused to pay militia taxes.

Jane Johnson (c. 1814-1827 – August 2, 1872) was an African-American slave who gained freedom on July 18, 1855 with her two young sons while in Philadelphia with her master and his family. She was aided by William Still and Passmore Williamson.


J. Miller McKim (November 10, 1810 – June 13, 1874) lectured extensively, worked with the Underground Railroad, co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, and frequently testified in court on behalf of freed slaves snared by the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1849 McKim was the recipient when slave Henry “Box” Brown was sealed in a box and mailed to freedom. He attended the 1859 execution of John Brown, and accompanied Brown’s wife as she brought his body home. After the Emancipation Proclamation, McKim organized efforts to welcome and assist the thousands of newly-freed slaves who emigrated from North, and in 1865 he organized the financial backing to establish the progressive magazine The Nation.

Lucretia Coffin Mott (January 3, 1793 – November 11, 1880) devoted her life to the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, school and prison reforms, temperance, peace, and religious tolerance. Mott helped form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and later was among the founders of the American women’s rights movement. Mott’s feminist philosophy was outlined in her Discourse on Women (1850), in which she argued for equal economic opportunity and voting rights. After helping to establish Swarthmore College in 1864, she served as head of the American Equal Rights Association.

Robert Purvis (August 4, 1810 – April 15, 1898) Purvis helped abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia and signed its “Declaration of Sentiments” in 1933. Purvis was the principal organizer in 1837 of the Vigilant committee, which engineered the escape routes through Pennsylvania for slaves heading for Canada – one of the first two such organized underground railroads. From 1845-1850, Purvis served as president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and as chairman of the General Vigilance Committee from 1852-1857. According to his records, Purvis estimated that from 1831 until 1861, he helped one slave per day achieve freedom, aiding a total of more than 9,000 slaves to escape to the North. He used his own house, located outside the city, as a station on the Underground Railroad. Purvis supported many progressive causes in addition to abolition. With his good friend Lucretia Mott, he supported women’s rights and suffrage. When Mott was president, he was a member of the American Equal Rights Association. Purvis also attended the founding meeting of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association. He believed in integrated groups working for greater progress for all. He and Mott believed there was “But One Race,” the human race and used the phrase Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth.

Thaddeus Stevens (April 4, 1792 – August 11, 1868) was a member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the Radical Republican faction of the Republican Party during the 1860s. A fierce opponent of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, Stevens sought to secure their rights during Reconstruction, in opposition to President Andrew Johnson. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the American Civil War, he played a major part in the war’s financing

William Still (October 7, 1821 – July 14, 1902) was an African-American abolitionist in Philadelphia, conductor on the Underground Railroad, writer, historian and civil rights activist. In 1847, three years after settling in Philadelphia, Still began working as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. When Philadelphia abolitionists organized a Vigilance Committee to directly aid escaped slaves who had reached the city, Still became its chairman. He wrote an account of their experiences, The Underground Railroad Records, published in 1872. By the 1850s, Still was one of the leaders of Philadelphia’s African-American community.

Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. 1822 – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made about thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved family and friends,[1] using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era struggled for women’s suffrage.

William Whipper (February 22, 1804 – March 9, 1876) and Stephen Smith – (1795-1873) were children of black mothers and white fathers. Both of their mothers were domestic servants in white households. Smith was born a slave in Dauphin County in south central Pennsylvania in about 1795; Whipper was born free in nearby Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in about 1804. Nothing suggests that either of them had a formal education. When Smith was five years old, his master apprenticed him to Thomas Boule’s business. In 1816 he purchased his freedom, married, began his own lumber company, and purchased real estate. In 1885 both of them became partners in one of the largest lumbering business in southeastern Pennsylvania, and expanded into selling coal. They both engaged in Underground Railroad activities and opened their homes to people escaping from slavery. Despite their won success, however they grew more pessimistic during the 1850’s regarding peaceful reform as a means of gaining black rights in the United States. Whipper began to promote black migration to Canada. In 1858 Smith hosted a meeting at which white anti-slavery activist John Brown discussed his plan to incite slave revolt in the South.

Jacob C. White  (1837-1902) A Black educator, White was the principal of the Robert Vaux School for forty years. He was a founder of the city’s first Black baseball club, the Pythians, and the first president of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital. In the 1890s White helped found the American Negro Historical Society – one of the first in the country to collect materials that documented the history of African Americans – and placed in its care the records of the Pythians, which he had held onto for more than twenty years. When marker W. E. B. Du Bois came to Philadelphia in 1896 to research his path breaking sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, White was one of his most important contacts and sources of information.

Passmore Williamson (February 23, 1822 – February 1, 1895)[1] was an abolitionist and businessman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a free state in the antebellum years. Secretary of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and a member of its Vigilance Committee, Williamson is best known for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons gain freedom from slavery on July 18, 1855.

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