The Black Self-Protection Society: Rebellion and Resistance on September 11, 1851

Poster warning northern Blacks of the dangers following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.
The Parker's house in the mid-1800s.
Samuel Hopkins and Peter Wood, participants in the Christiana Resistance. Photo taken in 1896.
Christiana PA plaque honoring William Parker.
By Felicia Gustin
Sep 9, 2013

The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington has brought civil rights struggles past and present into national discourse. And while the country marks the anniversary of September 11th there is another significant event on this date that merits attention as a turning point in the struggle for racial equality.

On September 11, 1851, William Parker (who had escaped from slavery in Maryland), his wife Eliza, and members of the Black Self-Protection Society living in Christiana, southeastern Pennsylvania, fought off a group of slaveowners and U.S. marshals who had come to take people back into slavery. The Christiana Resistance, according to Frederick Douglass, “more than all else, destroyed the fugitive slave law,” foreshadowing events to come as civil war loomed near.

By Parker’s own account (his memoir, “The Freedman’s Story,” was published by The Atlantic Monthly in 1866), “a number of us had formed an organization for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers, and had resolved to prevent any of our brethren being taken back into slavery, at the risk of our own lives.”

Lancaster County was also home to a large number of white Quaker abolitionists and the community served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Parkers lived not far across the border from the slave state of Maryland and incursions by southern slaveholders were common as were kidnappings of free Blacks as well as escapees from slavery. Parker’s group, armed with guns and clubs, had, on more than one occasion, already rescued Blacks before they could be taken South.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia a group called “The Special Secret Committee” had begun their operations with the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Parker explained their purpose: “…this little band of true patriots in Philadelphia united for the purpose of standing between the pursuer and the pursued, the kidnapper and his victim, and, regardless of all personal considerations, were ever on the alert, ready to sound the alarm to save their fellows from a fate far more to be dreaded than death.”

So when Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch and his companions arrived in Philadelphia to get a warrant to retrieve his four escaped slaves and headed towards Christiana accompanied by U.S. marshals, the group’s movements were already being relayed to Parker and his organization by the “The Special Secret Committee.”

In fact, a volunteer guide for Gorsuch’s group by the name of Samuel Williams was actually a member of Committee and stayed with the group for several hours before he slipped off and rode ahead to warn Parker and the community.

When Gorsuch’s group arrived at Parker’s farm in the early morning hours of September 11, a group of Blacks had already gathered. A verbal exchange between a U.S. marshal and Parker ensued, with Parker refusing to acknowledge the warrant, “I … told him to take another step, and I would break his neck.”

When the marshal threatened to use straw from the barn to set the house on fire and burn them out, Eliza Parker went to sound a horn on the second floor of their home which was the signal for the community to come quickly as kidnappers were about. As she blew, the marshal and his men fired on her at the window.

Tensions continued to mount and the stand-off went on for several hours until full-scale fighting finally erupted. When it was over Gorsuch was dead, his son and nephew both severely wounded along with several others from their party. Only two of Parker’s group were wounded.

Ultimately, U.S. Marines were sent in to stabilize the situation and 38 men (including four white Quakers who were abolitionist neighbors of Parker’s) were indicted for treason against the United States government, the largest group ever charged with treason in U.S. history. While treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution, Parker later said armed resistance was justified because Blacks “had no country” since they were not protected by U.S laws and statutes.

Parker himself was among those indicted but he and several others had gone into hiding before arrests could be made. Using the Underground Railroad, Parker made his way to Rochester, New York, where Frederick Douglass helped him cross into Canada.

The first person who went to trial was Castner Hanway, a white Quaker who was one of the first on the scene. The jury returned a “not guilty” verdict in just 15 minutes. (Among the five defense lawyers was Thaddeus Stevens who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives where he was a fierce opponent of slavery and discrimination against African Americans). Charges against all the accused were eventually dropped, signaling a major win for anti-slavery forces.

The Christiana Resistance, according to Douglass “inflicted fatal wounds” on the Fugitive Slave Law. “It became thereafter almost a dead letter,” he wrote, “for slaveholders found that not only did it fail to put them in possession of their slaves, but that the attempt to enforce it brought odium upon themselves and weakened the slave system.”

Many historians consider the Christiana Resistance a harbinger of the Civil War. It embittered relations between the North and the South and helped to precipitate the conflict that would tear the country apart a decade later.

Parker, later joined by his wife Eliza, continued his abolition efforts from Canada. He became a correspondent for the North Star, Douglass' newspaper published in Rochester, promoting “freedom and the intellectual and moral improvement of Blacks.”

Stories of resistance in our history books are few and far between and this is no accidental act of omission. Stories of resistance inspire resistance. When a law is unjust, people will defy that law. The more people stand up against unjust laws, the more they inspire others to do so as well. As William and Eliza Parker and their community did in the mid-1800s. As hundreds of Civil Rights activists did in the mid-1900s. As Dream Defenders and DREAM Activists and so many others are doing today.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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