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19th Century Attitudes about Slavery in Berks - Woven With Words


Several people contributed to this article


By the nineteenth century, as the slavery issue divided the nation, fear of and hateful attitudes toward African Americans in Berks County escalated.  In his “Black in Berks” project, Richard G. Johnson cites several letters to Congressman Ritter, who represented Berks, indicating these attitudes.  For example, John Vanderslice of Womelsdorf wrote in a letter 1845:


As not hearing from you Expect nothing has (been) done in my Claim and nothing will be don as Long (as) that question of anexing Texas will Keep Congress all Winter.... I wonder that some of the member(s) bring some solution to annex Santomingo (Santo Domingo) to the united States and Support them by the Government.... There are already too many Slaves in the united States which ought to be well considered as to my claim... (1972, I: 39).1


Also in 1845, Jonothan Schwartz of Mount Penn wrote:


...about the question of Slavery I care nothing. I well know that the South cannot do without Slaves, their Climate would kill all our working men in two Seasons, you know that the mass of the people of Pennsylvania are favorably disposed towards our Southern bretherin, and Penna. will never oppose their Constitutional right of holding slaves (1972, I: 39).


According to Barbara Goda, in February 1840, several outsiders came to Reading looking for runaway slaves. Over the course of several days, they examined as many African Americans as they could find, finally locking up someone they charged was “James Turner.”  The man was actually Harry Jones, one of the founders of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Reading who had lived in Reading for five or six years.  After a sensational trial during which the local community testified on Jones’s behalf, Judge Banks ruled that “there could be no legal proof that Turner or Jones owed service or labor to Cooley [his alleged Maryland owner]” (2004-2005 13).


However, many Berks Countians remained steadfast in their opposition to slavery, and some took part in the Underground Railroad (see “The Underground Railroad in the Nineteenth Century” in this book).  To cite just one of innumerable examples of Berks Countians standing up against the institution of slavery, Joseph Scarlet was arrested and tried for treason and levying war against the U.S. government under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which imposed severe penalties on anyone aiding a slave’s escape.  Scarlet had taken part in an 1851 riot between slaves and their Quaker supporters against federal marshals and bounty hunters in Christiana, Pennsylvania. Scarlet was acquitted of the charges (Johnson 1972, I: 43).



1 This letter, and the one that follows, is housed in the Historical Society of Berks County. It has been reproduced here exactly as it appears. Words and letters in parentheses were likely put in by Johnson


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