"THE TRUTH FACTOR" BLOG
She was Black America’s first self-made millionaire. The most powerful woman in San Francisco’s Gold-Rush period. She was a “one-woman social agency” for emancipated Blacks.
Her name was Mary Ellen Pleasant…and her legendary story is simply unbelievable.
Born in 1814, we know little about Mary Ellen’s youth because she told different tales to “please her audience or justify her behavior.” Some say she was born a slave. Others the daughter of a rich Virginian or an Hawaiian merchant or even a Caribbean voodoo priestess. We do know her enslaved mother went missing as a young child. That’s when Mary Ellen became an indentured servant for an abolitionist Quaker family (the Husseys) in Nantucket, MA.
As Pleasant grew up, she worked Hussey’s store and, despite little education, used the experience to hone her business, communication and people skills.
Mary Ellen was a natural. Friendly. Engaging. Enthusiastic.
“People,” she once said, “never go to sleep on me.”
Around 1840, Pleasant, no longer in servitude to the Husseys, moved to Boston. She married James Smith shortly thereafter. Her new husband was a staunch abolitionist. As a result, Mary and James worked together to transport former slaves through Boston via the Underground Railroad. They attended Anti-Slavery Society meetings. They worked with William Lloyd Garrison, who published the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.
When James died (after four years of marriage), he left Pleasant a small fortune. She used that nest egg to continue her clandestine service for the Underground Railroad. She was deeply committed, but eventually the work proved too dangerous for a single Black woman. Around 1848, she met and married John James Pleasant.
In 1849, hundreds of abolitionists (including Mary Ellen) emigrated to California, some to seek gold and others to ensure the Golden State remained safe and free for Blacks. After all, many Blacks were striking it rich in the gold fields…and soon Pleasant would find her wealth too.
With leftover money from her first marriage, Pleasant began trading in silver and gold.
She also hired on as a domestic housekeeper for wealthy San Francisco men. From conversations (many overheard and some direct), Pleasant launched a slough of businesses, including laundries, boarding houses, livery stables, dairy farms, loan offices and even brothels. Pleasant helped found the Bank of California and multiple restaurants. Meanwhile, her husband John worked as a ship cook and was often at sea.
During her 30-year marriage and stint in San Francisco, Pleasant became exceedingly wealthy.
And the more she made, the more she gave away. She continued to anonymously fund the Underground Railroad, as well as underwrite housing and jobs for former slaves. Pleasant established safe houses for runaway slaves and paid the legal fees for Blacks being extradited back to slavery.
Between 1857 and 1859, Pleasant returned east to help raise money for the abolitionist John Brown. When Brown was hung for murder and treason, due to his part in the Harper’s Ferry incident, an anonymous note was found in his pocket: “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.” Years later, Mary Ellen Pleasant confessed to penning that note. She also revealed how she gave Brown’s operation $30,000 (nearly a million dollars today).
Pleasant also helped women—of any ethnicity. She housed and clothed them. She taught them manners. She even arranged marriages. At the end of the Civil War, Pleasant stopped working as a housekeeper to fully devote her life to Black civil rights.
By 1875 Pleasant’s investments and businesses had made her a millionaire thirty times over (nearly a billion dollars today). With her great fortune, Mary Ellen eventually retired to a quiet life in her San Francisco mansion. Although always friendly, she often refused opportunities to share her story out of respect to people she knew and served.
On January 11, 1904, Pleasant passed away. Her life a testament to hard work, charity and Black civil rights. She literally lived up to her name.
Mary Ellen Pleasant. Abolitionist. Millionaire Entrepreneur. Philanthropist.
And now you know the rest of HERstory.
- “Mary Ellen Pheasant” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Ellen_Pleasant
- A Historical Detective Story: Part II Mystery of Mary Ellen Pleasant”.Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company. May 1979.
- “Pleasant, Mary Ellen (1812?–1904), Legendary Woman of Influence.” Hutchins Center. https://web.archive.org/web/20170429044655/https://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/pleasant-mary-ellen-1812-1904-legendary-woman-influence
His legacy is as long as his name.
Known as the “African Founding Father of California” William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. (1810-1848) helped start San Francisco.
He was America’s first Black millionaire thanks to highly lucrative businesses in shipping and lumber.
And he was multi-racial…African, Cuban and Jewish.
Leidesdorff’s contributions and name are largely lost today, but his story is the reason why America is great.
Leidesdorff was born in Saint Croix, the oldest son of four children, to a bi-racial mother (African and Spanish) and a Jewish father. He was baptized Lutheran, as that was the assumed faith of his dad.
In 1834, Leidesdorff became a U.S. citizen. Seven years later, after working stints in New Orleans and New York, he migrated to California, settling in a small village that would eventually become San Francisco. That’s when Leidesdorff developed his businesses. He built the first hotel, horse racetrack, commercial shipping warehouse and public school in San Francisco. He operated the first steamboat in San Francisco Bay.
When Leidesdorff initially migrated to California the territory belonged to Mexico. Consequently, Leidesdorff needed Mexican citizenship to fully and successfully conduct his businesses. However, that status required he convert to Catholicism and learn Spanish. He complied and, in 1844, Leidesdorff was granted Mexican citizenship…as well as 35,000 acres of land south of the American River.
After the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), California came under U.S. rule. Leidesdorff”s ability to speak Spanish and understand Mexican political culture proved a perfect pick to serve as U.S. Vice Consul to Mexico. Eventually, he served as President of the San Francisco School Board, City Treasurer and a City Councilman for San Francisco’s first government. Leidesdorff never married and became one of the wealthiest bachelors in California’s pioneer years.
On May 18, 1848, William Leidesdorff unexpectantly died, following a bout with typhoid fever (which was a viral epidemic at the time). His funeral shut down San Francisco. Flags flew at half-mast. Businesses and schools closed. The entire town mourned his passing. To this day San Francisco and Folsom, CA honor his legacy with Leidesdorff streets. He was honored with a final resting place inside Mission Dolores Church.
He was only 38 years old…still in the prime of his life.
Leidesdorff’s vast land holdings included the American River, near present day Sacramento. And that real estate proved fortuitous. Beneath Leidesdorff’s dirt was gold. Lots and lots of gold. The treasure was good, but the timing was not. as William passed away just as the California Gold Rush of 1849 heated up. He’d never know his true net worth. In 1856, a portion of his property was auctioned for $1.4 million ($51.6 million in today’s dollars). Due to the fact Leidesdorff had no will nor heirs, his estate has been intestate. Consequently, a complete inventory of his holdings has never been reckoned.
In the end William Leidesdorff’s reputation was, according to one biographer, “liberal, hospitable, cordial, confiding even to a fault.” He was the man who seeded the Golden State of California and built the city of San Francisco.
William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. Pioneer. San Francisco Founder. Millionaire Businessman. Diplomat.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “William Leidesdorff” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Leidesdorff
- “William Leidesdorff” (Jewish Encyclopedia): https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9729-leidesdorff-william#ixzz0YStM51GT
- Washington, G. (2007, January 26). William Alexander Leidesdorff (1810-1848). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/leidesdorff-william-alexander-1810-1848/
STEPHEN SMITH (1795-1873) was born into slavery. At the tender age of five he became the indentured servant for Thomas Boude, a Pennsylvanian businessman. Smith spent his youth working the lumberyard. However, he also learned lessons from his master about business. This mentoring would make Smith rich beyond imagination.
In that day, an indentured servant was different than a slave. Indentured servants worked for a limited time and then were freed. When Smith turned 21 he was now an adult and could choose to continue in servitude to Boude or leave. Smith chose the latter. He acquired a $50 loan and purchased his full freedom.
Now he labored in the lumberyards for his own dime. Smith eventually married and soon opened his own lumber business. In his thirties, Smith expanded his business into coal, real estate and railroads. He invested in the stock market.
As his wealth grew, so did his influence.
In 1830 Smith presided over the African American Abolitionist Organization in Colombia, PA. His hometown newspaper noted that Smith’s business success had “excited the envy or hatred of those not so prosperous and of the ruling race.” In 1835 racist vandals destroyed Smith’s offices, including all his papers and records. They wanted to stop his businesses. However, this act of destruction only lit a fire under Smith to work harder to abolish the institution of slavery. To escape the vitriol, he moved to Philadelphia to start over…and quickly regained all his wealth. He knew how to make money.
In Philadelphia, Smith found a new problem. It was difficult for abolitionists to find a place to meet. So Smith bought Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia and opened it for abolitionist venue for their meetings. But that didn’t go unnoticed by some anti-Black locals. They also wanted Smith gone. On July 17, 1838 an angry pro-slavery mob torched his building. Smith was devastated, but he also understood the law and how to make it work to one’s favor. Consequently, he sued the city of Philadelphia and won a $75,000 damage package (more than the building was even worth). Smith was back in business.
Neither fire nor hate could stop Smith. He passionately continued to promote abolitionism.
He even financed the underground railroad to transport runaway Southern slaves to Canada.
All the while his wealth increased. A lot.
By mid-century, Smith was grossing over $100,000 a year. His business acumen had returned huge dividends. By the end of the decade his net worth was half a million dollars ($16.7 million today).
At the same time, the political winds were turning against the abolitionists and Black community. The 31st U.S. Congress–a Democrat-led Senate and House–passed several pro-slavery laws, including the Fugitive Slave Act (1850). Smith knew this particular act was dangerous and so he convinced 15,000 Blacks to join him and move to Canada (financing their travel and new life). Fifteen years later, only after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves was law, did Smith return to Philadelphia. He was still a very rich man.
Smith’s wealth led to his notable philanthropy. He gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund schools, old age homes, churches and other organizations that benefited local communities. His generosity only made him richer. By the time of his death in 1873, Smith’s wealth, according to his hometown newspaper, was nearly “equal to the combined wealth” of the nation of Columbia.
Stephen Smith was Black America’s first true business mogul. However, his desire to abolish slavery and lift his people out of bondage is what’s truly inspiring.
STEPHEN SMITH. Former Slave. Businessman. Abolitionist.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Stephen Smith” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Smith_(abolitionist)
- Stephen Smith by Alicia Rivera (January 18, 2007): https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/smith-stephen-1795-1873/
- Note: Some facts, including Smith’s birth date (1795 or 1797) vary, depending on the source. Due to Smith’s early years as a slave, actual birth records are hard to verify. When in doubt on the facts, I have chosen to reflect the majority’s view.
“I always go where Jesus calls me.”
And Clara Brown (1803? – 1885) did just that. Widely known as “Aunt Clara” or the “Angel of the Rockies,” Ms. Brown was lauded for her Christian philanthropy and community leadership in pioneering Colorado. Clara Brown is a true American hero. It’s a tale worth reading.
Brown was a slave for over five decades. She was born into slavery sometime between 1800 and 1803 in Spotsylvania County, VA. As a three-year old, Clara and her mother were sold to a Kentucky farmer named Ambrose Smith, who put them to work in his fields. According to one biographer, Clara’s earliest memory was being sold on the auction block. It was a memory she’d relive again.
Clara’s new master proved a kind man…and a devout Methodist. He faithfully transported Clara and her mother to church every Sunday.
At age eight, Clara converted to Christianity and centered her life on Faith.
In her late teens Clara married a slave named Richard, and they had four children. But in 1835, their owner died…with debts to pay. That’s when Clara’s entire family was auctioned off. They were sold to different masters living in various locations. Clara never saw her husband again. She, herself, was sold to a master named George Brown to became his house slave. Clara eased her deep grief, the loss of her own children, by raising her master’s kids. She’d work for Brown another twenty years.
When George Brown died, his will emancipated Clara. She was 56 years old.
Tasting freedom for the first time, Clara headed west…initially to St. Louis.
Clara worked as a maid and cook. When she learned of the gold rush in Colorado, Clara took a gig cooking for a Denver-bound wagon train. It would prove a historic moment. Clara Brown became the first Black woman to arrive in Colorado. And she immediately went to work…with laundry as her specialty. Everywhere Clara lived she opened a laundry business. Despite in older age, Brown was still enterprising…and finding wealth.
Eventually Clara moved to Central City, CO to follow the miners. They needed their laundry done and Clara was eager to wash. But she also knew where the real money was. Besides her fee, Clara learned to carefully collect any gold dust left in the miner’s pockets rather than let it disappear in the wash. Brown also cooked, nursed, midwifed and cleaned for the miners. Her influence brought opportunity. She started a church in her house. She used her saved earnings to fund St. James Methodist Church. She even launched a Sunday School—the first in the Rocky Mountains.
In time Clara quietly became rich.
She invested in Denver and Central City real estate. Clara bought mines in Boulder, Georgetown and Idaho Springs. But she didn’t keep her earnings long. Brown’s deep Methodist faith led her to serve widely and give generously. She spent thousands helping Blacks to emigrate West (and then found them work once in the territory). Clara freely housed, nursed and cooked for the unfortunate. She “grubstaked” (gave loans) to destitute miners.
Around the age 80, Clara faced her own tough times, and watched her fortune dwindle.
Fires and floods destroyed her real estate. Clara had given away nearly every dime to schools, churches and other charities. She also spent considerable time and money returning to the East to find her long-lost slave children. She never gave up hope.
Then in 1882 a letter informed Clara that one daughter was still alive. She took a train to Council Bluffs, IA and reunited with her long-lost daughter Eliza. The joyous reunion came home to Colorado. Eliza lived with her mother in Denver from that point forward. Clara Brown died on October 26, 1885. She was buried with honors by the Society of Colorado Pioneers. Even the Colorado governor and Denver mayor gave eulogies at her funeral.
Clara Brown is considered one of the 100 most influential women in Colorado history.
She was inducted into the Colorado’s Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989. Clara even had an opera penned about her life titled “Gabriel’s Daughter.” Brown was known affectionately as “Aunt Clara” or the “Angel of the Rockies.” One biographer observed how her residence was “a hospital, a home, a general refuge for those who were sick or in poverty.” It’s quite a story about an amazing woman.
But there’s one more incredible fact to note about Clara: she was illiterate. She could neither read nor write. Yes, that inability created opportunity for the devious types to take advantage (and many unfortunately did), but Clara never seemed to mind.
She was just going (and doing) whatever Jesus told her.
CLARA BROWN. Former Slave. Businesswoman. Philanthropist. Christian Leader.
And now you know the rest of HERstory.
- “Clara Brown” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Brown
- Martineau Wagner, T. (2007, July 09).Clara Brown (1803-1885). org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/brown-clara-1803-1885/
- Watch a PBS documentary on her life: https://www.pbs.org/to-the-contrary/watch/6806/film-festival-winner-for-us-history_-clara_angel-of-the-rockies
- Colorado History: Clara Brown: https://www.historycolorado.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/2017/aunt_clara_brown.pdf
The Smithsonian Magazine named her among America’s “Most Significant” individuals.”[i]
She’s been commemorated on towers, highways, stamps, ships, monuments, and currency. A space rover and asteroid were named for her. Gloria Steinem initially considered branding Ms. Magazine in her honor. She was inducted into the Woman’s Hall of Fame (1981).
Many consider her America’s greatest Black American. Her influence inspired Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King, Jr., She’s a hero to Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama. She’s the first black woman to receive a statue in the U.S. Capitol.
And yet her name and legacy remains largely unknown.
Her real name was Isabella Baumfree or “Belle.” She was born a slave sometime in 1797. At age nine, her master sold her for $100 and some sheep. Unfortunately, her new owner proved cruel, beating her daily with rods. Two years later Belle was sold again. And then again. Her third master raped her repeatedly and fathered a child. Belle was an angry adolescent, filled with shame, guilt, anxiety and fear.
In 1815, Belle fell in love with another slave, but the relationship was doomed. His master forbade the love affair. One day he caught them together and savagely beat her boyfriend. He would’ve died had Belle’s master not intervened. Nevertheless, she never saw her beau again. He died shortly thereafter. It was a tragedy that haunted Belle her entire life.
Eventually she married another slave and bore him four children. But Belle remained unfulfilled and increasingly angry. Even though New York state initially abolished slavery in 1799, it took decades for the practice to end on July 4, 1827. It no longer matter to Belle. She was done with slavery.
In 1826 she escaped with her daughter Sophia.
“I did not run off,” Belle recounted, “for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” In her escape she met a devout Christian couple named Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, who graciously boarded Belle and Sophia. In their care Belle had a transformative religious experience. She also learned her son was illegally sold into southern slavery. With the Van Wagenens assistance, Belle won the court case to get him back. It was the first time a black woman won a legal battle against a white man.
Belle’s new transformative faith experience anointed her to preach.
So she hit the road, speaking to anyone who’d listen. Her skill as an orator caught the attention of evangelists Elijah Pierson and Robert Matthews. Belle worked for both preachers, improving her communication skills. And then Pierson suddenly died and Matthews and Belle were accused of poisoning him. It wasn’t true. Belle was eventually acquitted of the murder, However, she was now in her thirties. All she knew was the road and poverty. Eventually she migrated to New York City and spent most of her forties exhausting options.
By 1843, Belle was flat broke.
So she went to church. It was Pentecost Sunday, the day the Christian church was born. It proved a day that would forever change Belle too.
In a moment of fiery spirituality, Belle rediscovered her Calling to preach the Word. She had nothing to lose. She packed her belongings in a pillowcase and hit the road again, living off the kindness of New England strangers. That’s when she met abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. Garrison published the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. He loved Belle’s story and eventually released her autobiography The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850).[ii] The book sold like hotcakes.
Belle was 53 years old. And suddenly she was “rock star” famous.
Except her name was no longer “Isabella.” As her book announced, Belle’s new name was “Sojourner Truth.” It was the moniker a Divine Voice told her to use seven years earlier on that Pentecost Sunday. For Sojourner that’s the day she left her bondage…to wander as a “sojourner” and preach the Truth of Jesus.
Sojourner was “born again” into a new mission.
She found her audience speaking against slavery and for women’s suffrage. Her speeches lit a flame that exploded into five alarm blaze. In 1851 Sojourner Truth spoke for a convention in Ohio and delivered her famous women’s rights speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” As she drew on her slave story, the audience reportedly “[beamed] with joyous gladness.” It remains one of America’s most famous speeches.
In her elder years Sojourner Truth tirelessly gave thousands of messages on abolition, women’s suffrage, prison reform, alcohol temperance, and property rights. She was as popular as Frederick Douglass on the speaking circuit, with both black and white audiences. During the Civil War Sojourner recruited black Union soldiers, consulted for President Lincoln and assisted newly freed slaves. She advocated for former slaves to be granted land in the West. She wrote war songs. As a Republican she campaigned for Ulysses S. Grant.
Sojourner Truth died on November 26, 1883.
She had done more for her people, and for her country, in her final three decades than most people do in a lifetime. Frederick Douglass eulogized: “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”[iii]
Sojourner Truth accomplished many glorious deeds. However, contemporary historians often overlook her Christian faith. Sojourner never lost her fire for Jesus.
Her devout Christian faith guided her life and mission.
She always preached the gospel to anyone who’d listen. And no matter the topic or audience, Sojourner started every message with ten words: “Children, I talk to God and God talks to me.”
Indeed, Sojourner Truth still talks today…for those with ears to hear.
[i] “Meet the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” by T.A. Frail; Smithsonian Magazine (November 17, 2014): https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonianmag/meet-100-most-significant-americans-all-time-180953341/
[ii] The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (Boston: 1850). Available for download: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Narrative_of_Sojourner_Truth/UW_hAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=The+Narrative+of+Sojourner+Truth:+A+Northern+Slave&printsec=frontcover
He was a former slave and a wealthy farmer who founded his own town. And he personally purchased the freedom of over a dozen family members. His name was Frank McWhorter (1777-1854). But once Frank broke the yoke of his own slavery, he joyously added a new prefix moniker: FREE.
Free Frank McWhorter…because freedom is what drove this man.
McWhorter was the son of a West African slave named Juda. She was abducted and transported to South Carolina where a slave owner named George McWhorter purchased her. The slave owner was likely Frank’s father. It was a rough start to a tough life.
In 1795 McWhorter moved his farm to southern Kentucky and put his 18-year-old slave Frank in charge. But he also leased him as a day laborer to neighbors. This proved a hidden blessing. Frank not only discovered new skills, but he also learned how to do business. He often earned more money than he needed to repay his master.
As a result, Frank started to save his extra earnings.
He salted away so much money that when his master moved to Tennessee (and left him to manage the farm), Frank started his own saltpeter company. Saltpeter was used for fertilizer, gun powder and fireworks. And during the War of 1812 the explosive chemical was in high demand, making Frank an increasingly wealthy man.
In 1799, Frank married Lucy—a slave on a neighboring plantation—and together they had 13 children born into slavery…but only four survived.
Frank desperately dreamed of freedom. He wanted his family to be free.
And at that time the only path to freedom was through escape or purchase. By 1817 Frank had finally saved enough money. He redeemed his pregnant wife Lucy first for $800 ($14,500 today). She’d later give birth to Squire—the first Black McWhorter born free.
Two years later, Frank purchased his own freedom. That’s when he changed his name. He wanted everyone to know he was “Free Frank McWhorter.” In 1829, he traded his saltpeter plant for the freedom of another son. By now he also had two more freeborn children.
A year later, Free Frank McWhorter moved his family to Pike County, IL to farm in the western frontier. In 1836, he purchased 80 acres from the U.S. government for $100. McWhorter then built his home and plotted out lots to create a town called “New Philadelphia.” It was a fully integrated community, including an integrated school. It was also the first municipality incorporated by a Black man. McWhorter served as its mayor for years.
The rest of his life was devoted to FREEDOM.
McWhorter purchased liberty for his grown children and grandchildren, still in slavery. In his travels to buy his relatives’ freedom, he often risked his own capture. Despite his legally free status, devious slave traders often kidnapped free Blacks and transported them deep into Southern plantations. Somehow “Free Frank” always slipped through their hands.
Free Frank McWhorter died on September 7, 1854. In his life he had redeemed 16 family members from slavery. His heirs used their estate money to free another seven.
New Philadelphia—the town founded and led by McWhorter—slowly declined. The railroad was built to the north in Baylis and businesses moved to improve their access. By 1900 the town was gone and the land reverted back to farmland. In 2005 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. “Free Frank” even has his own memorial highway along I-72 in Pike County, IL.
According to one biographer, McWhorter was “a live, enterprising man, a reputable, worthy citizen, kind, benevolent and honest. He labored hard to free his posterity from the galling yoke of Southern slavery.”
It’s truly a story about freedom, albeit a tale that’s grown dusty due to time and neglect.
FREE FRANK McWHORTER.
Former Slave. Pioneer Farmer. Business and Family Man.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Free Frank McWhorter” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Frank_McWorter
- The History of Pike County Illinois (Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman & Co., 1880): 739. Available for download on Google books.
He was a wealthy Philadelphia businessman…and a leading voice for abolitionism. He was a sailmaker, author and political activist…a free black in a white world.
One biographer noted he was “one of the most powerful African-American voices…he knew how to use the press and the speaker’s podium. He knew about building alliances…[and] the nature of power and authority.”
His name was JAMES FORTEN (1766-1842). And he helped to change America…for good.
Forten was born in Philadelphia, PA on September 2, 1766, the grandson of a slave who “freed himself.” When his father died young, James was forced to work at the tender age of seven. However, thanks to a Quaker abolitionist and educator named Anthony Benezet, young Forten was still educated free of charge. Nevertheless, by age nine he was working full-time. He’d literally work his entire life.
At age fourteen, James Forten joined the Colonial Navy during the Revolutionary War. His ship was eventually captured, and Forten was sequestered to a British “starving ship.” For most captured Blacks this was the end of the line. But Forten’s young, impressive personality saved his life. His friendly relationship with the captain’s son helped him to negotiate an early parole…and a new address. Forten spent a year in a London shipyard before returning to Philadelphia in 1790.
James was only 24 years old, but his shipyard experience primed him for a career in sail-making. Initially laboring as an apprentice, his leadership skills landed a promotion to foreman. By the time his boss retired nine years later, Forten had saved enough to buy the the whole business (a financial feat few Blacks enjoyed).
Very soon Forten was one of Philadelphia’s most prominent and wealthiest businessmen.
And status gave Forten a new powerful stage.
That’s when he began to publicly advocate—as a Black man—for the abolition of slavery and civil rights for Blacks to vote and serve on juries. Forten anonymously authored a pamphlet titled “Letters from a Man of Colour” (1813) that advocated for black civil rights. He also took a surprising and strong stand against the “American Colonization Society”—an early 19th century movement to re-settle free blacks in Africa, Canada or Haiti. Many abolitionists and clergy advocated for re-colonization but Forten disagreed. Since free blacks were born in the States, he argued, America was their home. It was wrong to remove native Americans.
His argument convinced and converted William Lloyd Garrison—soon to become America’s leading abolitionist. Forten then used his wealth and prominence to help Garrison launch The Liberator abolitionist newspaper in 1831. He even wrote for it. The Liberator was a religious journal that influenced many Americans to adopt abolitionist views, including a new reader named Frederick Douglass. The newspaper ran for three decades (it’s last issue in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery).
It was a journal that might not have happened without Jame’s Forten’s wealth, business skills and passion for abolishing slavery.
James Forten died March 4, 1842, at 75 years of age. Thousands attended his funeral, both black and white. He left behind a wife of 36 years and nine children (all who followed in their father’s abolitionist calling, marrying prominent and becoming wealthy). Oh, and there’s one more interesting tidbit: Forten never tasted alcohol (serving as a steadfast supporter of the Temperance Society).
One biographer capped his life with this single line: “When James Forten died, he left behind an exemplary family, a sizable fortune, and a legacy of philanthropy and activism that inspired generations of black Philadelphians.”
It’s a success story you probably have never heard.
JAMES FORTEN. Businessman. Abolitionist. Author.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “James Forten” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Forten
- “James Forten”: The Freedman’s Book by L. Maria Childs (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866): 101-103. Available for download on Google books.
“Let me pass away quietly.”
These were the last five words of PAUL CUFFE (1759-1817).
He was the son of a freed Ghana slave (father) and a Wampanoag Indian tribe (mother). He taught himself to read and write and do math. He also self-learned marine navigation. In 1772, Cuffe inherited his family farm (due to his father’s death). He was only 13 years old.
Cuffe grew up to be a rich and highly lucrative shipper. His black-only crews sailed the Caribbean and Atlantic, and, as their captain, he had a keen ability to successfully navigate British blockades. Eventually the British caught up to Cuffe. In 1776, he was arrested and imprisoned by the British.
In 1783, Cuffe married a Wampanoag widow named Alice Abel Pequit and built an “Indian-style” house near Dartmouth, MA. Together, he and his wife raised seven children. The same year as his nuptials, he persuaded the Massachusetts state legislature to allow free blacks to vote.
Paul Cuffe was a dedicated Christian of the Quaker faith. He was widely known for his speaking abilities and loved to share his Christian testimony. During the War of 1812, despite suffering great financial losses, he founded a “society” to provide money to freed slaves so they could build homes in Africa. Between 1811 and 1816, Cuffe personally transported dozens of free black families from Massachusetts to Sierra Leone. He also personally funded their new African economy and worked for its national success. In fact, it’s possible without Cuffe’s money, the new nation of Sierra Leone might never have survived.
With a personal net worth over $500,000 ($11.3 million today), Cuffe lived comfortably on his 116-acre farm in Dartmouth, MA. He remained deeply committed to his faith, the abolition of slavery and to education of blacks all his life, but not just “blacks only.” Cuffe always believed in racial integration, thanks to his mixed Indian-Black heritage. In fact, he established the first racially integrated school in the United States (Westport, MA). He was also the first black American to meet with a U.S. President in the White House (James Madison).
Cuffe died in early 1817. Henry Noble Sherwood penned one of the earliest biographies about his life and summarized:
“Overwhelming his industry, his religion and education stands his optimism. He believed in the victory of righteousness; therefore, he worked for it. He believed in the triumph of truth; therefore, he dedicated himself to it. He realized the mastery of poverty; therefore, he gave pursuit to wealth. He believed in the amelioration of his race; therefore, he consecrated himself to it.”
PAUL CUFFE. Mariner. Abolitionist. Christian.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “Paul Cuffe” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Cuffe
- Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Paul Cuffe (Horace N. Bill Printer, 1839).
On this day millions of Americans will attend a church, and many will attend a “megachurch” over 2000 members. And yet most of Americans, regardless of religious interest, are unaware of the first megachurch.
At its zenith, this congregation attracted over 2000 people every Sunday–including politicians, businessmen, professors, socialites, common folk. They came to hear sermons by guys named Rev. Ralph, Leland and Boynton. Never heard of them? Me neither. The first megachurch wasn’t about a celebrity pastor.
It was a gathering of Christians inside our U.S. Capitol.
On DECEMBER 4, 1800 Congress approved the use of the Capitol for church services, following a proposal by Thomas Jefferson. Yes, THAT Thomas Jefferson. The “deist” or “agnostic” Jefferson. The “anti-Christian” Jefferson. The “separation of church and state” Jefferson. Which is why we need to be careful WHO we trust for our history. Thomas Jefferson was certainly no “giant” in his religiosity, but he still stood head and shoulders over most American Christians of our age. He was a religious man.
During the 1800s, people in the DC area flocked to the Capitol building to hear sermons, worship, pray and fellowship. Attendances swelled into the thousands, particularly in the post-Civil War years. But even before Jefferson’s proposal was approved, the U.S. Capitol building was being used for CHURCH SERVICES. A 1795 newspaper in Boston reported that in “our infant city (Washington, DC). Public worship is now regularly administered at the Capitol, every Sunday morning, at 11 o’clock by the Reverend Mr. Ralph.” The reason was simple: DC had no churches.
The Capitol Church drew many congressmen and U.S. Presidents, including John and Abigail Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln.
One of its most faithful congregants was, again, Thomas Jefferson, who religiously attended the Capitol Church. Jefferson rode to church services at the Capitol on his horse (regardless of the weather), while President Madison was notably more flamboyant. He arrived in a fancy carriage pulled by four white horses! One congregant journaled about her early 1800s Capitol Church experience that the hall was so crowded “the floor of the House offered insufficient space, [and] the platform behind the Speaker’s chair, and every spot where a chair could be wedged in” was occupied. Now that’s a full house! Sometimes the Marine Band led the song service.
For most the 1800s (1800-1857), the Capitol Church met either in the North or South wing, then Statutory Hall. In 1857 the Church moved into the House chambers (where today we view the annual State of the Union address). The hymnals were purchased by Congress. Can you imagine any of this happening today? Sometimes multiple church services (up to four) were scheduled by different denominations, particularly when a church building was being built elsewhere in town. The Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Unitarians all met there.
Today we think of our U.S. Capitol as a wholly secular facility and yet for its first 100 years a CHURCH, sometimes many churches, met in its hallowed halls.
It also confirms the intent of our Founding Fathers wasn’t to segregate religion or separate “church from state,” as many believe today, but rather to keep the state out of the churches. This was the real point of Jefferson’s assurance to a band of Baptists concerned the new U.S. Constitution would allow a particular Christian denomination to gain control. He was saying the Constitution separated the STATE from the CHURCH, not vice verse. Ironically, Jefferson penned those famous “separation of church and state” words and then two days later attended church services at the U.S. Capitol. If he truly believe that “church and state were to be separated” then his behavior is hypocritical.
Maybe it’s more reasonable to think we’ve missed Jefferson’s point.
It’s an INCONVENIENT HISTORY that secularists want Americans to forget.
They don’t want you to know the REAL Thomas Jefferson. They don’t want you to know the man who supported missionaries, attended church, and even created a special “Jefferson Bible” to better evangelize the Indian (not cut out parts he didn’t agree with, as we’re taught today). This Jefferson doesn’t fit their secular narrative.
THE TRUTH? From the beginning, Christianity and religion was woven into the fabric of America. And the fact our U.S. Capitol was once a GATHERING PLACE for Christians to worship and hear the Word of God proves how far off track we’ve gone.
Actually, a little RELIGION in the U.S. Capitol might do a lot of good. And you can’t spell “good” without G-O-D.
1. BOSTON CHURCH NEWS ARTICLE: Federal Orrery, Boston, July 2, 1795, p. 2.
2. THOMAS JEFFERSON’S CHURCH ATTENDANCE: Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard), The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Galliard Hunt, editor (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), p. 13.
3. JEFFERSON’S ATTENDANCE BY HORSE AND IN BAD WEATHER: Cutler and Cutler, Life, Journal, and Correspondence, Vol. II, p. 119, in a letter to Dr. Joseph Torrey on January 3, 1803; see also his entry of December 26, 1802 (Vol. II, p. 114).
4. JAMES MADISON’S ATTENDANCE: Abijah Bigelow to Hannah Bigleow, December 28, 1812. “Letters of Abijah Bigleow, Member of Congress, to his Wife,” Proceedings, 1810-1815, American Antiquarian Society (1930), p. 168.
5. CROWDED CAPITOL SERVICES: Smith, The First Forty Years, p. 14.
6. HISTORY OF CAPITOL SERVICES: James Hutson (Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress), Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998), p. 91.
It could be the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decision of our lifetime. Arguments are currently underway involving Mississippi laws that severely limit the practice of abortion. Both pro-choice and pro-life advocates believe it’s the case to reverse the famous 1973 Roe v. Wade.
But what’s really at stake?
Will abortion be outlawed in America if Roe v. Wade is reversed? Was the 1973 case an example of unconstitutional judicial over reach? Is it just a religious matter?
The legality of abortion rests on four primary points:
- Humanness: at what point is the fetus clearly human?
- Viability: at what point can a fetus survive outside the womb?
- Right to Privacy: does the U.S. Constitution protect the rights of the fetus or the mother? Or both?
- Accessibility: are abortion services a federal or state responsibility?
Roe v. Wade was a “landmark decision” because it fundamentally changed existing law and carved a new interpretation for the Constitution. Landmark decisions are often done without legal precedent (that’s why they’re “landmark” in their rendering). Essentially, the 1973 Burger SCOTUS in a 7-2 decision acted outside the established law at that time. This is not a debatable fact. Roe v. Wade was “landmark” for how the 1973 SCOTUS interpreted historical Constitutional law.
But who guided this Warren Burger SCOTUS?
The Burger Court included William O. Douglas (considered the most liberal SCOTUS justice in U.S. history), William J. Brennan, Jr. (the leader of the SCOTUS liberal wing), and fellow liberal justices Harry Blackmun (who wrote the Court’s opinion on Roe v. Wade) and Thurgood Marshall. Marshall once described his legal philosophy: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up”
Consequently, the Warren Court was leaning left in 1973. A decade earlier the SCOTUS had ruled to eliminate prayer and Bible reading in public schools. With the transformative cultural changes of the late 1960s, every American institution was under attack. New religions, new lifestyles and new cultures were soaking the American landscape.
Abortion was a practice that was becoming newly acceptable in America.
Until 1973, abortion had been a matter of state legislation. Connecticut was the first state to make the practice illegal in 1821. By 1900 every state had abortion legislation. The biggest issues were accessibility and criminality. Historically, abortion providers were back alley, under the table and often dangerous options for pregnancy termination. It’s why many states legislated against their existence. There was no such thing as a medically “safe” abortion. In fact, it was a horrific practice often with horrific consequences.
Consequently, the women who pursued an abortion were desperate. They had no other options. And it didn’t take long for law enforcement to target the pregnant in their attempts to root out illegal abortion centers and their doctors (who faced stiff fines for performing abortions). However, women were also charged with crimes. In 1971, a hospital in Florida reported a woman for having an abortion and she was charged with manslaughter (receiving a two-year “house arrest” probation). The Florida Supreme Court eventually overturned her sentence.
The first state to legalize abortion on demand was California in 1967. There was no state line limitation. Consequently, women from around the U.S. flew to the Golden State to terminate their pregnancies. A particular flight from Dallas to Los Angeles was so popular for pregnant women that it was dubbed “The Abortion Special.” There were even prepackaged “non-family plan” trips. Abortion was a new industry in California. And it created new problems for other states.
In 1969 at Texan named Norma McCorvey learned she was pregnant. It was her third child and she didn’t want it. Her friends encouraged her to falsely claim “rape” in order to obtain an abortion (as many states allowed abortions for rape or incest). But Texas law was stricter. Abortions were reserved only to save the life of the mother. She became known as “Jane Roe” to protect her identity. The defendant was the District Attorney in Dallas named Henry Wade.
And that’s how “Roe v. Wade” came to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1970.
Arguments for the case were scheduled for December 13, 1971, but the retirements of two justices (Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan) created pause. There were also other related cases (Doe v. Bolton, Younger v. Harris, United States v. Vuitch) that influenced how much jurisdiction the SCOTUS enjoyed. In the Vuitch case, the constitutionality of criminal abortion was at play, particularly using abortion as a medical procedure. When the Vuitch case was narrowly decided in favor of abortion, and the two SCOTUS openings were filled (by Lewis F. Powell and William Rehnquist) it opened the gate for a full hearing on Roe v. Wade. The Burger Court ultimately used their own precedent ruling (for Vuitch) to rule in favor of abortion as a federally-protected medical practice.
Many constitutional scholars at the time, and to this day, believe the Burger Court technically “legislated from the bench.” The liberal wing of the SCOTUS was progressive and radical, perhaps more than any Court before or since. As mentioned, Thurgood Marshall believed in judicial activism. Only Byron White and William Rehnquist (who was a newly appointed justice) dissented.
Between 1973 and 2019 an estimated 62 million abortions occurred.
However, since 1997 abortions have reduced by nearly half—from 1.19 million to 630,000. The high mark for abortions was 1990 (1.43 million) and the low was 2017 (613,000). In general, the use of abortion services has declined. In the 1980s, with the birthing of the “Baby on Board” generation or Millennials, America began a new chapter in how it viewed family planning, contraception and babies. It’s no surprise than the single largest drop in abortion occurred between 1997 and 1998, when abortions dropped under the million mark (884,000) for the first time since 1975. That’s the year the first Millennials turned 16 years of age. They had a different outlook on abortion. Many preferred adoption to terminating a pregnancy.
In the past half century, the ability to nurse a fetus outside the womb has dramatically improved. Furthermore, the scientific technology now allows us to better observe and track fetal development. It’s why few developmental biologists deny that human life is detectable (with a separate and distinct heartbeat) by the sixth week of gestation. It’s also why pro-life advocates continue to view abortion as the termination of a human life. Meanwhile, many pro-choice proponents argue that abortion should be legal all the way to birth, and some even suggest, immediately after birth. Finally, constitutional scholars continue to cite the Burgers Court’s decision to federally legalize abortion as judicial over-reach. Technically abortion services should be decided by the people and the legislators of each individual state.
So revisiting Roe v. Wade in 2021 is not necessarily a bad thing.
If the science has proven there is human life (just like there is dog life or chicken life) after a certain point, even up to conception, then Roe v. Wade was a wrong decision. Constitutionally, all persons (which would include unborn) have legal protections.
Second if medical advances have improved the viability of a fetus to increase his or her ability to survive outside the womb, then Roe v. Wade was a wrong decision. It would be a criminal act to terminate a pregnancy for any reason other than saving the life of the mother, including rape or incest.
Third if the Roberts SCOTUS disagrees with the Burger SCOTUS on the “right to privacy” for the mother, based upon pre-1973 legal precedents and a historical interpretation of Constitution law, then Roe v. Wade was a wrong (and rogue) decision. Essentially the Robert’s SCOTUS would return the SCOTUS to its historic position as a nonpartisan opinion that judges Congressional law (not state law) for constitutionality. The SCOTUS was not instituted to overturn or uphold rulings by the state Supreme Courts. It was created to temper the laws produced by the FEDERAL legislative and executive branches. Since the FDR administration, the U.S Supreme Court has increasingly became more powerful and even “legislative.” In some cases, and many contend Roe v. Wade is a prime example, they legislated and not judged.
Finally, there’s the matter of accessibility. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will not end abortion services. That’s a red herring by pro-choice advocates. All it does is return, rightfully, the LEGISLATION of abortion services to the individual states. If California, Oregon and Washington desire to be states where abortions can be legally and safely administered, so be it. But if Idaho, Mississippi and Texas prefer all abortions services in their state to be illegal, that’s okay too. We are a more mobile culture in 2021. We can safely travel anywhere in the U.S. If a pregnant woman in Idaho wants to terminate her pregnancy, she can cross the state line and have the procedure done in Oregon or Washington.
Overturning Roe v. Wade will not make abortion illegal in every state. It will only make it illegal in states that prefer the practice to be illegal.
The winds are favorable for the SCOTUS to reverse the Roe v. Wade ruling. The conservative majority justices tend to rule via historical precedent and original interpretation of the Constitution. They see it as a fixed document until amended by “we the people.” The liberal minority justices tend to view the Constitution as a fluid document that shifts as culture changes (i.e., progressive). It was progressive justices that paved the way for this landmark 1973 decision (shifting how we looked at abortion in America) and, it seems now, that it will be constitutional justices who could correct the ruling. The only “precedent” case the current SCOTUS has was in 1992 (post Roe v. Wade)–a case that upheld abortion services using Roe v. Wade as precedent. However, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, all later rulings would also fall.
Progressive justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned in the argument phase: “Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?” Ironically that has been the argument against the Burger Court since 1973, that it “acted politically” rather than constitutionally. No matter how the current SCOTUS rules on this matter it will be either applauded or despised, just as it was in 1973.
Two conservative justices asked the most compelling questions regarding Roe v. Wade.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked, “Why should this court be the arbiter rather than Congress, the state legislatures, state supreme courts, the people being able to resolve this?” In other words, this is NOT a FEDERAL matter. It should be a state’s prerogative. The Burger SCOTUS was wrong to remove the right for individual states to legalize or criminalize abortion services. It does seem like over reach.
Justice Samuel Alito inquired, “Can it [be] said that the right to abortion is deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the American people?” In other words, is this a matter of recent history or has abortion always been part of “who we are” as Americans? One could argue slavery was, at one time, “rooted to the history and traditions of the American people.” It was “we the people” (through an amendment to U.S. Constitution that corrected that evil). One could also argue for Christian religion as a “right” that’s historically been a part of our national fabric. But abortion on demand? Before California’s legalization of abortion in 1967, the practice was nearly non-existent in America. It only became more desirable in a post-Pill contraceptive culture. In the era of 1960s sexual exploration and liberty, abortion was the most convenient way to resolve an “unwanted” problem. The question still remains: “Does that make it right?”
That’s why this isn’t a religious issue, even though religious beliefs play into the argument.
In the end, any decision to terminate a pregnancy is an ETHICAL choice based upon biology (is this growing fetus in the womb a human or not?), convenience (how easy, safe and affordable is the abortion option) and pragmatism (what will keeping or ending this pregnancy mean for the mother or the baby birthed)?
What the Robert’s SCOTUS will decide is whether that ethical choice is only for the mother alone. Does the fetus have a “right” to a voice, especially if its biological fact that he or she is clearly human? Regardless of the decision, abortion on demand will not end. Many, perhaps most states, will continue to offer abortion services. America is not going backward to “coat wire” back room, unsanitary abortion rooms. That’s another red herring.
But in the end, constitutionally, this probably is better decided by individual states. But that also means federal funding of abortion will need to end. And that’s probably what abortionists fear the most (the loss of federal funds). However, as many pro-life advocates argue, why should those who fundamentally believe abortion is a murder have to foot the bill for those who use abortion as a convenience, an easy out for “choosing” to engage in sexual relations. Is the privatization of abortion services a bad thing? Does this multi-million dollar industry need propped up by federal dollars? Could federal funds formerly targeted for abortion services be re-directed towards mental and emotional health services?
As for protecting women who conceived via rape or incest, this too is a difficult matter. There is evidence that the physical trauma of the act—especially rape—very rarely ends in a conception, let alone a full-term baby. Perhaps the only exception would be “date rape” where the partners somewhat know each other and and inconvenient and unwanted consequence can happen. Incest can also produce pregnancy, but it also creates genetic consequences too. These are difficult gray areas, but they tend to be exceptions. In general, most U.S. abortions are performed for reasons other than rape or incest (or to save the life of the mother).
Ultimately, the greatest consequence of reversing Roe v. Wade would be federal funding and some inconvenience. Otherwise, women who desire an abortion could still get it and states (populated with people who are more pro-life) can legislate against the practice.
That’s the way it was before 1973.
And perhaps the old way was better.
- “Roe v. Wade” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roe_v._Wade
- Number of Legal U.S. Abortions: 1973-2019: https://www.statista.com/statistics/185274/number-of-legal-abortions-in-the-us-since-2000/
- U.S. Abortion Rates, 1960-2013: https://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/graphusabrate.html