In the center of Philadelphia, a runaway mother desperately held her infant son close as she matched wits with a ruthless slave catcher.
The mother, Catherine Thompson, escaped slavery in Maryland, married a free man named William Thompson, and eventually settled in Burlington County, Latest Jersey. There she gave birth to her son, Joel, and in August 1850, received an invite from a white man named James Frisby Price to go to him and his wife in Philadelphia. Catherine obliged, and he or she brought her infant son Joel along with her to fulfill the Prices. But when she arrived on the Price household in Philadelphia, she found herself face-to-face with the notorious slave catcher, George Alberti, Jr.
Black Americans like Catherine Thompson faced a precarious freedom living within the antebellum North. Despite its history of abolitionism, including passing the nation’s first gradual emancipation act, the forces of slavery still lurked across the state of Pennsylvania, especially in the town of Philadelphia.
Labeled as “essentially the most northern of southern cities” by one historian, Philadelphia hosted street battles over slavery throughout the period, which is the main focus of my recent book, “Street Diplomacy.” These battles took many forms, from fugitive slave rescues and the kidnapping of free blacks to vicious riots that led to the wanton destruction of black Philadelphia. These conflicts at the road level in Philadelphia became inextricably fused to state and national politics, as white politicians’ ability to categorise enslaved African Americans each as property and as human beings represented a fundamental tension throughout the US.
The source of this problem stemmed from the 1793 federal Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slaveholders and slave catchers to pursue fugitives from slavery across state lines. Compounding this issue, states like Pennsylvania passed laws that not only promoted freedom, i.e., their 1780 gradual emancipation act, but in addition sought to guard free black Pennsylvanians against kidnappers masquerading as “legal” slaveholders.
When analyzed at the road level, I discovered that the lives and actions of black Americans bore the burden of maintaining harmonious relationships between so-called free states like Pennsylvania and slave states. Black Philadelphians and their white allies collaborated within the streets and within the state legislature to persuade lawmakers that any type of slavery was tantamount to kidnapping, and thus, no black American could possibly be secure if slavery existed anywhere within the U. S.
Abnormal black and white abolitionists practiced what I call “street diplomacy”: the up-close contests over freedom and slavery on the local level in Philadelphia that influenced politics and politicians on the state and national levels. Throughout my book, I analyze the particular cases of kidnappings and fugitive slave retrievals that led street diplomats to pressure Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass “liberty laws,” i.e., state’s rights laws designed to guard black Pennsylvanians. While most of those cases began on the streets of Philadelphia, all of them involved high-profile politicians, from governors to members of Congress to Supreme Court Justices. These struggles in Pennsylvania delivered to light the illusory nature of borders between free and slave states, in addition to the inherent tension over freedom and slavery that eventually led to the Civil War.
Returning to Catherine Thompson’s case, here we witness how she acted as a street diplomat in a high stakes game of life and death. She clung to her child for 2 reasons, the primary being essentially the most obvious: she loved him. Yet she also knew that if she refused to depart him in Philadelphia, Alberti could be charged as a kidnapper under Pennsylvania law if he brought them each back to Maryland. Even after enduring a savage beating from Alberti, Thompson wouldn’t let go of her child. Tragically, Alberti eschewed the legal ramifications, and shunning basic human decency, brought them back to Maryland, where Thompson’s former enslaver sold them further south, never to be heard from again.
Nevertheless, black and white street diplomats convinced Philadelphia officials to press charges against Alberti and Price. The jury found them guilty and sentenced them to prison on the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary. In a cruel accident, the newly elected Democratic Governor William Bigler of Pennsylvania pardoned the pair the following 12 months, and each men returned to ply their grim trade on the streets of Philadelphia.
The case of Catherine Thompson and her infant son Joel was one in a plethora of comparable events that exploded across the north prior to the Civil War. Confronted by such cases, white Americans soon began to chafe over the inhumanity of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which charged all Americans with aiding within the return of runaways. In time, Americans increasingly rejected being beholden to slaveholders who hoped to spread slavery, and never freedom, across the nation. Northerners elected a president in 1860 who refused to just accept the expansion of slavery because the true mission of the U.S. The Civil War reflected the culmination of street diplomacy, the efforts of black and white Americans who worked together to destroy slavery and produce a few more perfect Union.
Elliott Drago is the Editorial Officer on the Jack Miller Center.