Rescuing African American Kidnapping Victims in Philadelphia

The authors of this essay on the Joseph Watson Papers Eric explore efforts to rescue African American kidnapping victims during the 1820s, specifically those incidents documented in letters to and from Joseph Watson in Philadelphia, PA.

Joseph Watson was mayor of Philadelphia from 1824-1827, during which he presided over weddings, city functions, made appointments, and greeted foreign visitors like Marquis de Lafayette of France to the city. (318). His duties also expanded far beyond his expectations for the office. During his tenure, Watson “received numerous letters… a few from southerners writing about alleged kidnappings of the city’s African American children.” While Watson could have ignored these letters he chose instead to respond, working to help  free these children and put an end to the kidnappings. It was not uncommon for free African American children to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. In fact, the authors insist that kidnapping was evolving into “a well-organized business venture.” (318)

Kidnappings like this and the testimony of witnesses were a product of “what we call today ‘racial profiling’.” For example,  white Philadelphians witnessing a struggle between a white male and a black child or a black male and a black child perceived the struggle as something understandable -perhaps the child was really a fugitive or had done something wrong that required discipline. (321) By forging a connection to the racial profiling of contemporary society, the authors allow readers to make their own connections and to recognize the significance of slavery as a historical subject.

Adapted from Critical Review of Notes and Documents: Rescuing African American Kidnapping Victims in Philadelphia as Documented in the Joseph Watson Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by Kymberly Peters

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