James W.C. Pennington/James “Jim” Pembroke: “The Fugitive Blacksmith”

JamesPenningtonJames 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 slave, blacksmith, and freedom seeker. He was self-educated and active in abolition and temperance. His journey from slavery to freedom offers a valuable perspectives on the “peculiar institution” and his involvement with a variety of organizations and societies demonstrates the role that African Americans played in educating others about the ideals of freedom.

Archival Sources

Papenfuse, Edward C. et al. “James Tilghman (1743-1809).” A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789. Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives in the Archives of Maryland series, 2 Vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, 1985. 2: 823-4. Accessed November 1, 2014. 

This brief biography appears in the records of  the Maryland State Archives as part of their Archives of Maryland series on James Tilghman (1743-1809), James W.C. Pennington’s first owner. Tilghman died when “Jim” was two years old. A well-known politician in the state of Maryland, James Tilghman held a great amount of property at his death,  including 60 slaves. While this biography does not list the names of individual slaves, it does provide evidence of his wealth and standing within the state. His eldest son, Frisby Tilghman (1773-1847) inherited the entire  estate, including Jim Pembroke, in 1809. Although not explicitly named in this document, Frisby Tilghman’s executorship is described in other documents described here and found in the Maryland State Archives, particularly the Queen Anne’s County Register of Wills from 1810. The Archives of Maryland series is available and searchable online at http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/.

QUEEN ANNE’S COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Administration Accounts) James Tilghman, 1810, WHN 4, i,  289-291, MdHR 16,765 MSA C 1335-10. Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives via “James Tilghman (1743-1809) MSA SC 3520-1265.” Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series). Last modified January 29, 2003. Accessed on November 2, 2014

The Administration Accounts of James Tilghman’s estate goes into detail about Tilghman’s wealth, as well as his debts, at the time of his death. This document also names Frisby Tilghman as the executor of his father’s estate, and provids a location for the Tilghman estate in Queens Anne’s County.   “The first account of Frisby Tilghman Administrator of all and singular the Goods, Chattels and personal Estate of James Tilghman late of Queen Anne’s County deceased.  This Accountant charges himself with the amount of the deceaseds Inventory returned on this 1st day of September 1810 amounting to . . . . . . . $22140.82 ½.”

QUEEN ANNE’S COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Inventories) James Tilghman, WHN 7, i, page 9-24, MdHR 126, 738 MSA C1412. Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives via “James Tilghman (1743-1809) MSA SC 3520-1265.” Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series). Last modified January 29, 2003. Accessed on November 2, 2014

The inventories of James Tilghman’s estate provide an even more detailed view of the “Goods, Chattels, and personal Estate of James Tilghman.”  In this document, specifically pages 16-18, Tilghman’s slaves (“Chattels”) are listed by name, age, and value.  Here, we discover Jim was indeed a slave belonging to James Tilghman, as were his mother, Nelly, and his brother, Robert.  Although not stated in this document, other documents described here indicate that Jim’s father, Bazil Pembroke, was a slave owned by another slaveholder on a nearby plantation.

Primary Sources

Runanway Ad for Pennington

“200 Dollars Reward.” Torch Light and Public Advertiser. November 1, 1827. Western Maryland Historical Library.  Accessed November 1, 2014. .  

This newspaper clipping, digitally preserved by Western Maryland’s Historical Library, describes Jim’s escape from Frisby Tilghman’s perspective. Jim ran away from Rockland, Frisby Tilghman’s plantation located outside of Hagerstown (present-day Tilghman/Fairplay) in Washington County, Maryland in the late fall of 1827. Tilghman published this ad offering a $200 reward for Pembroke’s return. Frisby described James as “five feet inches high, very black, square and clumsily made, has a down look, prominent and reddish eyes, and mumbles or talks with his teeth closed, can read, and I believe write, is an excellent blacksmith, and pretty good rough carpenter.”  Frisby placed the advertisement in the Hagerstown Torch Light and Public Advertiser. The notation “tf” indicates he paid to run the ad until Pembroke was found. The advertisement provides some important clues about Pembroke’s. He was educated and skilled—he can read, maybe write, and is a blacksmith and possible rough carpenter. For these reasons, the reward offered by Tilghman is significant. One part of the advertisement raises some questions about:   “Any person who will take up and secure him in the jail of Hagers-town shall receive the above reward.”  Why must James be captured and jailed in Hagerstown for the full reward?  Is it because of Maryland Fugitive Slave Laws?  This question has not yet been answered, but will be as part of the mapping of James’ escape and eventual route of life, if you will, hence answering the questions of why did he go where he went once he escaped and where did he go to avoid capture?

Blakeslee, Joel. “MR. BURLEIGH.” The Charter Oak, October 28, 1847. Accessed November 1, 2014.

The Charter Oak, “An Anti-Slavery Family Newspaper,” was published in Hartford, Connecticut in the 1840s.  In this specific article written for the editor (Mr. Burleigh), on the second page, the author refers to an “interesting address” given by Rev. Mr. Pennington to the Litchfield Co. Anti-Slavery Society in October of 1847. In his address, Pennington, spoke about his “belief that the present design of the southern oligarchy” would ultimately result in the South annexing Mexico and from there stretching to “shake hands with the slaveholders of Brazil” in order to expand their peculiar institution.  The author of the article also noted that Pennington spoke about his life as a slave and a letter he had sent to Frisby Tilghman to inquire about purchasing of his freedom, remarking: he “hoped he had repented of the theft he had committed, (referring to his moving with his body and soul out of Maryland, without liberty.)  Is it possible that a worthy minister of the Gospel is living in such circumstances and perils, in Connecticut?  It is even so.”  The reprinting of Pennington’s remarks at the Litchfield Co. Anti-Slavery Society is a most important source for it provides us the information that Pennington was active in Anti-Slavery societies and that he, at least by 1847 in Connecticut, had possibly revealed or mad known the fact that he was a fugitive slave.  The newspaper, of course, also provides context to 1840s Connecticut and the environment in which Pennington was an active abolitionist and reverend.

Hooker, John. “Rev. Dr. Pennington.” Frederick Douglass’ Paper. June 26, 1851. Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Last modified November 1, 2014.

John Hooker, a parishioner befriended by James W.C. Pennington, wrote a letter for Frederick Douglass’ Paper in June of 1851 about “Rev. Dr. Pennington,” who he said was “in a fair way of becoming a man.”  Although it sheds light onto Pennington’s birth into slavery, his escape, and career, the beginning of Hooker’s letter provides more insight into the divide between the North and the South that ultimately transforms into the divide between whites and blacks.  Hooker discloses that Pennington confided to him that he was a fugitive slave, a fact he had not even disclosed to his wife.  Pennington shares this information with Hooker we are told so that he “might attempt a negotiation with his master for the purchase of his freedom.”  Hooker holds in his hands now the cards to either help “Dr. P.” become a free man (despite Frisby Tilghman’s death) or change his mind and “send him to a sugar plantation.” The opening and subsequent paragraphs on Pennington have an ironic tone that shows the enlightened superiority those who did not own slaves seemed to hold over slaveholders— outlining a marked difference between the North and the South.  However, by the end of the piece, Hooker decides he must go on a walk so that he may “see how it seems to be a slaveholder,” and that Pennington is not yet a man, a “Peer of the Realm,” for “The title to him [Pennington] still rests with me [Hooker].”  This is the marked difference between whites and blacks in the United States—in that whites own blacks and can easily take control of their destiny, for “White people giveth life and taketh it away.”

Pennington, James W.C. 1849. 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. Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001.

Perhaps the most important primary source for understanding and mapping the life of James W.C. Pennington is his own autobiography, which focuses heavily on his escape from and sentiments about slavery.  Pennington’s The Fugitive Blacksmith was published in 1849—while he was still a fugitive slave; interestingly, the work was published in London, where Pennington was at the time (why he was in London is revealed through many of the secondary sources that all provide at least some semblance of a biographical timeline).  Pennington’s account of slavery in western Maryland also provides a vivid, if not harrowing, picture of slavery.  Included in The Fugitive Blacksmith are two letters Pennington wrote and “are simply introduced to show what the state of my feelings was with reference to slavery at the time they were written.”  The first letter is to Pennington’s father, mother, brothers, and sisters; the second letter is to Colonel Frisby Tilghman.  The Fugitive Blacksmith is most relevant to this work because it was not only written by the fugitive slave in question but also because it provides the framework to Pennington’s life—his birth into slavery, his escape, his career, his initial escape route to freedom, and his continued travels from Pennsylvania to New York to Connecticut to England and then back to the States and then back across the pond and then back to the United States.  Because of his travels, Pennington’s life as a fugitive slave is easily drawn on a map, but this document enriches the locations. His remarkable story and life can be intertwined in the larger narratives of African American education, abolition, temperance, and freedom including the Underground Railroad, fugitive slaves, and the “chattel principle.”

Secondary Sources

Arnold, Tiffany. “With hope of being free, James Pennington fled Rockland estate.” Herald-Mail, April 11, 2011. Accessed November 1, 2014.

Arnold’s article about James Pennington, published in the Herald-Mail on the 150th anniversary of the firing of shots on Fort Sumter, gives a broad overview of Pennington’s life, specifically focusing on his life as a slave and his escape as a “freedom-seeker” to his subsequent education and career.  In one informational packed statement, Arnold writes, in great sum, the major accomplishments of Pennington’s life, and ultimately, what we should remember him for: “He led efforts to desegregate New York City’s public transit system and fought for the right of blacks to vote. He also received a Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Heidelberg and helped the Africans involved in the historic Amistad case form a Christian mission in Sierra Leone.”  Pennington’s life was a remarkable one indeed and his autobiography is a brilliant resource on its own, that according to Dean Herrin, a historian for National Park Service and coordinator of the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies (and author of another secondary source used within this bibliography). Ultimately, Arnold’s article is useful because it provides a summary of Pennington’s life and its recent publish date of April 11, 2011 allows us to see that not only the Civil War, but of the story of the slave and his/her narrative is still relevant to the overall American narrative.

Close, Stacey. “A Voice for Freedom.” Connecticut Explored, Vol. 11, No.1 (Winter 2012/2013). Accessed November 1, 2014. .

Close’s article, specifically its electronic reprint provides historic newspaper images related to Pennington’s life, especially his life in Connecticut.  Connecticut allowed Pennington to become “part of a highly organized and engaged African American community.”  While in Connecticut, Pennington served as pastor at the Talcott Street Congregational Church (Faith Congregational Church) and also helped to establish the North African and South African schools—schools for black children outside of the regular school system that many African American parents complained about.  Close’s article also led us to another primary source—the Charter Oak, an antislavery newspaper published in Connecticut.  Newspapers were very important in the nineteenth-century, seeing as how they provided the public with news and  both locally and throughout the country; naturally then, newspapers and publications were very important to Pennington—as was literacy—we learn from Close’s article that Pennington not only published the Textbook of the Origin and History, Etc. Etc. of the Colored People in 1841, but his autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith, in 1849, as well as writing published articles for the Colored American and briefly published two antislavery newspapers after the decline of the Colored American, The Northern Star and Clarksonian.  Ultimately, Close’s article provides a summary of Pennington’s life as well as insight into his life in Connecticut and his antislavery beliefs.

Hannold, Elizabeth, preparer. “Individual Property/District Maryland Historical Trust, Internal NR-Eligibility Review Form, Rockland, WA-II-102.” Maryland Historical Trust, Inventory of Historic Properties. Accessed November 1, 2014.

This document, prepared by Elizabeth Hannold, is for the Maryland Historical Trust and their internal review form for National Register eligible properties; the property in this document is called “Rockland” and is located in the “Fairplay Vicinity” of Sharpsburg Pike.  This historic home in Washington County, dating to the early 1800s, belonged to the industrious founder of the village of Tilghmanton (Fairplay), Frisby Tilghman.  Frisby was the owner of James W.C. Pennington, born James “Jim” Pembroke.  The information provided in this document, although primarily architectural, does discuss the importance of the property in its relationship to the Rev. Dr. James W.C. Pennington.  Most importantly, the Review Form provides context to the area of Rockland and Western Maryland so that we may better visualize and thus discuss, the map of Pennington’s life.

Herrin, Dean. “From Slave to Abolitionist: James W.C. Pennington of Washington County, Maryland.” Paper presented at the Millennium Crossroads Conference, Frederick Community College, Frederick, MD, September 30, 2001. Last modified November 1, 2014.

Herrin’s paper on Pennington provides wonderful information synthesizing not only the life and map of Pennington, but also the larger issues of slavery and specifically, slavery in “the mid-Maryland region.”  Herrin states that “Jim Pembroke’s [Pennington’s “slave name”] is one of the great slave narratives of American history,” and that his “life as an abolitionist and a public figure is well known,” but “few have examined his early years in Maryland.”  Yet his story is of utmost importance because it “tells us so much about slavery and early African American history in mid-Maryland, as well as aspects of the cultural world of the ante-bellum white planter class in the region.”  Throughout Herrin’s paper are pieces of Pennington’s life and how they reveal larger narratives about slavery.  Ultimately, Herrin’s paper is useful because it provides a context to Pennington’s life that also pleads: “Slavery is not an easy topic to study, yet it is a significant if tragic part of our history in the mid-Maryland region, and by studying such people as James W.C. Pennington and Frisby Tilghman, we will start to fill in that mosaic that is our complex past. Pennington’s story is only one of many. We need to discover the others.”

Read, Madeleine. “Summary [of James W. C. Pennington, 1807-1870: 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.” Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Last modified November 1, 2014.

Read’s summary of Pennington’s work is just that—a summary of Pennington’s autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith.  Read’s summary is useful because it provides the basic content of Pennington’s work in the order in which it appears in the book.

Taylor, Yuval, ed. “James W.C. Pennington: 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 I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Yuval Taylor, 103-158. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999.

Yuval’s edited anthology of classic slave narratives provides not only a reprinted copy of The Fugitive Blacksmith, but also provides a summary of The Fugitive Blacksmith and puts the book into the context of both Pennington’s life and the institution of American slavery when it was published in 1849.  Ultimately Yuval’s work is useful because it provides context and a reprint of Pennington’s The Fugitive Blacksmith.

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground. “Rockland (Washington County.)” Accessed November 1, 2014.

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground (TJTHG) is a National Heritage Area and “is a non-profit, four-state partnership dedicated to raising awareness of the unparalleled American heritage in the region running from Gettysburg, PA., through Maryland and Harpers Ferry, W.VA., to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, VA.”  Washington County, being part of this National Heritage Area, is discussed in various articles on TJTHG website. Of utmost importance to us is the article in the African American Heritage section on Rockland.  Rockland was the home of Frisby Tilghman, Pennington’s slave-owner; it is also where Pennington lived from about 1810 till his escape in 1827.  TJTHG’s article on Rockland provides context to not only Pennington’s home but also discusses Pennington himself and his life and career.

Adapted from James W.C. Pennington/James “Jim” Pembroke: “The Fugitive Blacksmith” –Annotated Bibliography by Heidi Carbaugh and Megan Hardy

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