black and white portrait

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “J. W. C. Pennington.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

James William Charles Pennington was a well-regarded reverend and abolitionist. His youth was marked by slavery’s brutality and perseverance to rise above it. Rev. Pennington was born a slave and died a freed man.

Rev. Pennington likely became involved in the convention due to his influence in the New York Presbyterian Church for African Americans. He did not personally attend the convention but sent letters from New York. His address in these letters is listed as 29 6th Avenue, New York, NY. He was a member of the Business Committee for the convention, and he authored the minutes’ appendix. Sending it the day before from New York, he discussed how important it was to hold such a convention, and that it was unfortunate that between 1834 and 1855 holding such conventions went out of practice.1

Rev. Pennington was born the oldest of many children and lived with his siblings and his mother. He and his family lived in a plantation in Hagerstown, Maryland, and served a cruel slave owner who beat them without reason.2 After years of abuse, he ran away at age twenty-one. He met William Wright, a benevolent Quaker from Pennsylvania who cared for him and harbored other fugitives.3 He fled to Philadelphia then to New York, where he found employment and became a man of the church.

In New York, Rev. Pennington began his studies to become a minister and later traveled to Yale Divinity School where he was allowed to attend classes, but he never received a degree. He also received an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Heidelberg while at a Peace Conference in Paris. Rev. Pennington helped to found the American Anti-Slavery Society, as well as, the Union Missionary Society (later renamed to the American Missionary Society). In the Appendix for the 1855 National Colored Convention, he mentions a close friend of his—Rev. James Leonard a Baptist Minister from Rhode Island.

Frederick Douglass was also a good friend of Pennington. Pennington and Douglass met in Manhattan, New York, right after Douglass’ escape from Maryland with fiancée, Anne Murray. Pennington performed Douglass and Murray’s marriage ceremony.4 Prior to getting his reverend license, Pennington taught in Black schools and gave speeches against the American Colonization Society.5 Pennington’s devotion to education stems from his own experience and desire to prevent Black children of being robbed of their needs. He wrote, “[The slave child] is thrown into the world without a social circle to flee to for hope, shelter, comfort, or instruction. . . of this, the slave child, however tender and delicate, is robbed.”6 Pennington felt strongly that education could improve the lives of free Blacks and dispel the charge of ignorance against them. For this reason, he advised Black parents to take their children’s education further and to not be satisfied once they’ve attained basic arithmetic, reading, and writing skills.

Pennington’s strong convictions about self-learning, communal effort toward education, and religion are eloquently expressed in his autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith, published in 1849 (Scroll down to read full text). Nine years before the release of his autobiography, he wrote and published Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People (Link), which employs reason, biblical passages, and history to argue against the dominant proslavery discourse. Rev. Pennington died in 1870 while living in Jacksonville, Florida, after decades of fierce activism that extended beyond sermons and speeches.


Submitted by Patrick Sears, University of Delaware.

Edited and Revised by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.


  1. Proceedings of the National Colored Convention 1855
  2. David E. Swift. Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989), 206
  3. Christopher L. Webber. American to the Backbone: The Life of James Pennington, the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Abolitionists. (New York: Pegasus Books, 2011).
  4. Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself. (Minneapolis: Filiquarian, 2007),120.
  5. David E. Swift. Black Prophets of Justice, 210
  6. James W. C. Pennington. The Fugitive Blacksmith or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington. 2nd ed. (London: Gilpin, 1849), 2. Link.