James W.C. Pennington (born James “Jim” Pembroke (or Pembrook), on the Eastern shore of Maryland in Queen Anne’s County in 1807) was an African American man who wore many hats. He was a slave, a blacksmith, and a fugitive. He was also self-educated, an abolitionist, a member of temperance societies, well-traveled, and well-published. His life provides an interesting perspective on the peculiar institution and his journeys offer insight into the processes of escape and freedom.
Jim Pembroke and his mother, Nelly, were owned by James Tilghman of Queen Anne’s County in Maryland. When Pembroke was just two, James Tilghman died, leaving his estate to be administered by his eldest living son, Frisby Tilghman. Nelly and her two sons, James and Robert, were sent to Frisby Tilghman’s plantation, Rockland, in Washington County in 1810. Frisby purchased Jim’s father, Bazil Pembroke, from a plantation near his father’s on the eastern shore.
According to a national Register eligibility form produced by and for the Maryland Historical Trust, Col. Frisby Tilghman came to Washington County “sometime before 1800. He purchased 200 acres of land called ‘Widow’s Mite’ in April of 1800 which he named ‘Rockland.’ The property, which grew to nearly a thousand acres, remained in the Tilghman family until 1850. He also founded the village of Tilghmanton [also known as Fairplay], located about a mile south of Rockland, as a community for the poor.” Jim Pembroke would live on this massive plantation until his escape in the fall of 1827.
In 1815-1816, Jim was apprenticed to a blacksmith. Skilled slaves were more valuable to their owners. During this period, a Methodist minister began to hold camp meetings near Rockland, hoping to convert enslaved people and, according to Pembroke, address “words of comfort to the slaves.” For this the minister, Reverand Jacob Gruber, was arrested and tried for encouraging slaves to rebel. It was this event and Gruber’s subsequent trial that led Pembroke to contemplate escape. (see Herrin, paper presented at the Millennium Crossroads Conference, p. 5 and Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith, p. 68).
Nearly ten years later, on October 28, 1827, Pembroke left Rockland as though he was going to visit his brother outside of Hagerstown, but the trip was a ruse. Max Grivno explained in Gleanings of Freedom: Free and Slave Labor along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790-1860 that “the Mason-Dixon Line may have figured prominently on maps and in slaves’ imaginations, but it was invisible to those on the ground.” Indeed, Pennington wrote in his The Fugitive Blacksmith, that he was confused as to the direction he should go to escape to freedom: “But a still more trying question was, how can I expect to succeed, I have no knowledge of distance or direction. I know that Pennsylvania is a free state, but I know not where its soil begins, or where that of Maryland ends? Indeed, at this time there was no safety in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or New York, for a fugitive, except in lurking-places, or under the care of judicious friends, who could be entrusted not only with liberty, but also with life itself.” (Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith, p. 13)
Regardless, Pembroke’s escape was successful, and he remained mobile.
By 1828-29, Jim Pembroke, had was living in Brooklyn, New York, and he had changed his name to James William Charles (W.C.) Pennington.
Around 1840, he moved to Hartford, Connecticut. In 1841 he founded and served as the first president of the Union Missionary Society (later known as the American Missionary Association); he published a book, Textbook of the Origin and History, Etc. Etc. of the Colored People; and he was named delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention and first Peace Congress. For this conference, he traveled to England, returning home by 1844.
By 1848 Pennington had moved back to New York.
1849 was an important year for Pennington. He returned to England, and, while there, he published his narrative The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States. In that same year he received an honorary doctorate in divinity degree from the University of Heidelberg, after having previously taken classes in the subject at Yale, where he was denied an opportunity to earn a degree. Yet, in 1849 Pennington was legally still a slave. He had never been freed by his owner, Frisby Tilghman, who had died 1847. His freedom was put in great risk by the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act which made it a federal crime to knowingly harbor a fugitive.
Recognizing the threat, a group of Scottish abolitionists raised money to buy Pennington’s freedom. It is worth noting that in 1846 Pennington had attempted to buy his own freedom, as well as that of his parents. However, Tilghman was unwilling to negotiate the price and rejected the $1,500 had saved. By 1850, the executor of Frisby Tilghman’s estate made it publicly known that James W.C. Pennington’s freedom could be purchased for $150.
By 1856 Pennington was back in Connecticut, where he spent the vast amount of his time traveling and delivering sermons to various ministries.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Pennington returned to England, where he spent his time editing and eventually publishing the narrative of J.H. Banks, a fugitive slave from Alabama. Still in England in 1862, Pennington was arrested and jailed for, of all things, stealing a copy of the Pope’s translation of the Odyssey.
Pennington eventually returned to the States, where upon he left the Presbyterian Church and joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church. For the remaining years of his life Pennington traversed over the country, no longer fearful of being made a slave again, preaching in at least three major congregations: Natchez, Mississippi, Portland, Maine, and Jacksonville, Florida, where he founded both a school and church.
Pennington passed away in 1870. He lived a remarkable life and left behind a record that is rare in the slave population, yet for all he had accomplished and for all he had done, there was one thing that always weighed on his mind: the equality of African Americans in the United States, after all to Pennington, “There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I never can forgive. It robbed me of my education; the injury is irreparable.” (Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith, p. 56)