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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cinema review: Whispers of Angels

We watched a great documentary on the American route north to freedom for escaped slaves, aka, the Underground Railroad. The documentary has an accompanying website, Whispers of Angels. It is a 1 hour documentary using historian perspectives, reenactors, and readings from era speeches and writings. Of course we learn of Harriet Tubman but more of Thomas Garrett, the wealthy and fierce Quaker below the Mason-Dixon line who helped slaves North and William Still, the free African-American in Philadelphia who connected escapees with friends deeper into free territory after recording their oral histories.

The movie gives much credit in its narrow scope to the Quakers, of whom they write,
Member of the Society of Friends, a religious group founded by George Fox in 17th century England. The Quakers adhere to pacifist and humanitarian principles and reject the idea of dogmatic, organized religion. Believing that God is within each human being, Quakers hold meetings during which members sit quietly or speak their own minds rather than listen to a sermon. Many Quakers on the eastern line of the Underground Railroad participated because of their Quaker value system. It is, however, a misnomer that all Quakers were abolitionists; not all Quakers were involved in the Underground Railroad. In fact, a schism occurred within the Quaker establishment during the 19th century as a result of polarized views of activism. Orthodox Quakers relied on a conservative, gradual approach toward emancipation while Hicksites (after Elias Hicks, a New York Quaker) aggressively and actively pursued freedom for slaves.

The end of the movie also notes the importance of the African-American churches in the liberation of the slaves.
August Quarterly
Peter Spencer was the father of the Independent Black Church Movement. His African Union Methodist Protestant Church, founded in September of 1813, was the first independent black church founded in the United States (Richard Allen's AME Church in Philadelphia began in 1793 as a local church, but did not separate from the Methodist Episcopal Church until 1816). Spencer's church is known today as the Mother African Union Methodist Protestant Church and is located on 9th and North Franklin Streets in Wilmington, Delaware.
Born a slave in Kent County, Maryland in 1782, Spencer was manumitted upon the death of his master and moved to Wilmington. A mechanic with some knowledge of the law, Spencer became known in his community as "Father Spencer" as his particular brand of legal advice, literacy, and religious fervor made him popular. He taught people to read and write and believed in the power of education and religion as a powerful combination.
After the founding of the church, Spencer also created the August Quarterly in 1814, a meeting held in Wilmington on the last Sunday of every August. The Quarterly provided the black communities from several surrounding states with a reunion and religious revival of sorts. Slaves and free laborers were given the day off to attend. Runaway slaves used the Quarterly as a starting point from which to escape and Spencer himself aided in the escapes of slaves along with Thomas Garrett, Wilmington's station master. Before his death, Peter Spencer founded 31 churches and several schools.

Interestingly, the movie makes a point of the oppressive Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. They write,
Law passed in 1850 to render the northern states unsafe for escaped slaves. If an escaped slave made his way to a northern state and found himself encountered there by hunters or catchers, he could legally be taken back to slavery in spite of his residence in a free state because of this overriding federal law. Free citizens of free states could also be legally conscripted to aid in a slave's return to slavery. This law galvanized the abolitionist movement in the north.
The irony of this law is its disregard for State's Rights by those states who seceded based on this very principle.

I have many more posts about American slavery, history, cinema, human rights, the church, and the African-American experience.

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