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Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: September 18-24, 2003
Byline: Edward Lawler Jr., Historian of the Independence Hall Association

Slaves to Accuracy

A correction to the explanation of 1780 Act of Gradual Abolition ["Book Marks," Deborah Bolling, Sept. 11, 2003]: This weak law did not free Pennsylvania's slaves or their children, only the future children of an enslaved mother, born on or after March 1, 1780. And it required those children to work as indentured servants for the mother's master until age 28. Africans who were enslaved when the law was enacted remained enslaved for the rest of their lives.

Slave owners routinely took heavily pregnant women out of state so they would give birth in bordering slave states such as Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, where the children would be sold. Other slave owners defied the law by not registering the children born in Pennsylvania, and later selling them over the border.

Even George Washington took advantage of a loophole in the law, rotating the eight enslaved blacks he brought to Philadelphia to work in the President's House out of state every several months, so they could never establish a six-month residency in Pennsylvania and legally demand their freedom.

The text of the 1780 law, and first-person accounts of how it affected the lives of Pennsylvania blacks, can be found at www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse.

 

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