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Freedom Fought For and Denied - Woven With Words



Slaves and Free African Americans in the Eighteenth Century

Matthew Apsokardu


Records suggest that African American slaves in Berks County were treated better than slaves in other parts of the nation and that the “people of early Berks were, in the main, against the idea of slavery” (Johnson 1972, I: 18).  Slaves at Hopewell Furnace, for example, were allowed to establish their own villages.  However, other slave owners created “slave pens,” thick wooden cages that were most often located in cellars (Johnson 1971-72, 12).  Particularly as the century neared its end and anti-slavery attitudes in Berks were increasing, some farmers believed it wise to keep their slaves thoroughly contained. 


Due to the varied treatment they received, slaves responded in a variety of ways.  According to Richard G. Johnson, “Black enslaved people reacted to their servitude in one of three ways: they appeared satisfied with their ‘good treatment’ where such treatment was forthcoming, they ran away, or they killed their masters and caused an insurrection” (1971-72, 12-13).  In Berks, escape was a common option.  Johnson asserts, “The belief that slaves were happy and satisfied with the good treatment by their masters is a myth and should be exploded once and for all” (1972, I: 34).


How much was a slave worth in Berks County?  One slave, Cuff Dix, was advertised with a reward of three pounds for his capture and return, but that was hardly standard.  Other slaves were advertised for thirty shillings, fourteen shillings, and four pistols (Smith and Wojtowicz 1989; 66, 113).  Still others were advertised for three dollars, ten dollars, and sixteen dollars.  As Johnson states, ten dollars was a lot of money in 1800, equivalent to two days of a congressman’s salary (1972, I: 36-37).  Rewards were given monetarily or through bartering.


There was also an unusually strong anti-slavery culture in Berks in the eighteenth century.  Germans held sway in the area, and they quickly developed an abhorrence for the enslavement of people.  Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a German Lutheran leader, and his grandson, Henry A. Muhlenberg, a Berks County congressman in the 1830s, were two of Berks’ most staunch opponents of slavery.  Rev. Muhlenberg accepted African Americans into his church, and his grandson was brought up on charges in the U.S. Circuit Court for helping a slave escape; the case was settled out of court for one hundred and seventy dollars (Johnson 1972, I: 19-20).


Three Berks County legislators, Joseph Murray, George C. Andrews, and Joseph Gardner, opposed the successful attempt at the Pennsylvania State Convention of 1837-38 to reform the Pennsylvania constitution to insert the words “free white male” into Article III, Section I, thereby limiting African American suffrage until the passage of the 15th Amendment.  Fifty-two Berks Countians signed a petition against the change, and several other similar petitions were circulated in Berks County (1972, I: 21).


Berks Quakers had studied the actions of the Philadelphia-based Friends of Germantown, the first group in the country to stage a formal protest against the institution of slavery.  In 1779, the Friends collectively decided to free all their slaves, compensate the slaves monetarily for labor done, and urge others to follow their lead (Schaeffer 1941, 110).  One year later Pennsylvania passed the “Act for Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” which was amended in 1788 to “prohibit the transfer of pregnant slave women or slave children out of Pennsylvania and to stop the outfitting of slave ships in Philadelphia” (Zagofsky 2005).


The Act of 1780 was not flawless.  In order to get around the law, some slave owners would simply sell a slave approaching the age of freedom to an owner in an area where no gradual abolition rules applied.  They could then use that money to buy new, younger slaves.  Furthermore, if they purchased a slave from out of state, the Act of 1780 did not apply (Schaeffer 1941, 112).


Due to these loopholes, the slave trade continued after 1780.  There is evidence of an active slave broker, William Bell, operating in Berks in the last decade of the eighteenth century (Johnson 1972, I: 31-33) and advertisements from the time reveal a flourishing trade (Smith and Wojtowicz 1989).  An ad for a captured slave in The Weekly Advertiser on June 9, 1798, for example, appeared as follows:




State of Pennsylvania

June 8, 1798

On the first day of May last, was committed to my custody: A NEGRO or MULATTO MAN, named Abraham Johnston, appearing about 24 years of age, about 5ft 7 or 8 inches, well made, and says he understands the Blacksmith trade.  The owner of said Mulatto is desired to take him away on or before the 10th day of July next, otherwise he will be discharged on paying the Goal Fees.

                CHRISTIAN MADEIRA, GOALER (Johnson 1972, I: 30)


Although the rights of slaves changed very little after 1790, Berks Countians grew more and more sympathetic to anti-slavery causes and often helped slaves escape to Philadelphia or other desirable locations.  According to Johnson, the first record of free African Americans in Berks County is the 1790 census, which lists the following:


  • Sambo (Negro) with a household of three in Heidelberg Township;

  • Ben (Negro) with a household of two in Douglas Township;

  • Cato (Negro) with a household of two in Alsace Township (1972, I: 27).


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