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American to the Backbone

James Pennington and the fight to abolish slavery: The incredible story of a forgotten hero of nineteenth century America—a former slave who became a Yale scholar, congregational pastor, and international leader of the Antebellum abolitionist movement.

May 4 at Noon: San Francisco brown bag lunch with author at One Market, Spear Street entrance, near the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero. There are plenty of shops nearby to buy lunch. Drinks will be provided.

In 1827, at the age of 19, scared and illiterate, James Pennington escaped from slavery and soon became one of the leading voices against slavery prior to the Civil War. In five years he had become a school teacher and just ten years after his escape, Pennington was ordained to the ministry after studying at Yale. He served congregations in Long Island, Hartford, and Manhattan and traveled three times to England, Scotland, and the continent of Europe as an anti-slavery advocate. He was so respected by European audiences that the University of Heidelberg awarded him an honorary doctorate, making him the first person of African descent to receive such a degree. After the Civil War, he served briefly in Mississippi during reconstruction and then in Portland, Maine, and finally in Jacksonville, Florida.

As he fought for equal rights in America, Pennington’s voice was not limited to the preacher’s pulpit. He wrote the first-ever “History of the Colored People” as well as a careful study of the moral basis for civil disobedience, which would be echoed decades later by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. More than a century before Rosa Parks took her transformational bus ride, Pennington challenged segregated seating in New York City street cars. He was beaten and arrested, but eventually vindicated when the New York State Supreme Court ordered the cars to be integrated. In 1853, as African Americans struggled to define their role in America in the face of growing racism, Pennington was chosen to preside at a Negro National Convention in Rochester, New York. Leading white Americans attempted to define their country in mono-racial terms and many black Americans emigrated to Liberia or Haiti, but Pennington insisted “I am an American to the backbone and am entitled to the same rights as anyone else."

Christopher L. Webber, a graduate of Princeton University and the General Theological Seminary in New York (with two earned degrees and an honorary doctorate from the latter) and an ordained Episcopal minister, is the author of a number of books ranging from a guidebook for Vestries to a study of Christian marriage. He has also written hymns included in several major hymnals in the United States and Canada. His most recent books are American to the Backbone, a biography of James W.C. Pennington, a remarkable pre-Civil War abolition leader, Welcome to Christian Faith, an introduction to Christian life and teaching, Beyond Beowulf, the first-ever sequel to the old English saga, Beowulf, and A Year with American Saints, co-authored with Lutheran Pastor G. Scott Cady, which presents, stories of 365 men and women of every Christian tradition who have helped shape American life over four centuries. Other books include A Traveler’s Prayer Book, an introduction to the Episcopal Church called Welcome to the Episcopal Church, and Re-Thinking Marriage, the complete background to the current debate over a definition of marriage.

 Friday, May 4th from 12 Noon to 1:30 PM

Law offices of Duane Morris LLP at One Market Plaza, Spear Tower, Suite 2200 (Near the Embarcadero BART station)

Please RSVP to David Marshak '66


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