April 5, 2004 marks the 214th anniversary of the founding of the Virginia Abolition Society in Richmond. Slavery had been legal in Virginia since 1661. Early abolition societies were prominent from the 1780s to about 1812 and were present in almost every state.
In 1790, the Quaker and prominent businessman Robert Pleasants placed an advertisement in the Virginia Independent Chronicle announcing the meeting: “To the Friends of Liberty. Seeing that ‘Righteousness exalteth a nation’ and from a full conviction that all mankind are by nature equally entitled to freedom; and also that slavery is not only a moral but political evil; which often depraves the morals of the people where it prevails and rather tends to promote arbitrary power, than establish the just rights and liberties of mankind…” Several months later, Pleasants advertised in the same paper a follow-up meeting of what then was initially called the “Humane Society” to be held on June 15 in the Methodist Meeting House in Petersburg. All persons of every denomination and profession were invited to join the group so long as they were not slave holders.
At a time when one third of the country’s slaves lived in Virginia, and at a time when Richmond was a major slave market, these announcements must have created quite a stir. According to historian Jay Worrall, in his magnificent Friendly Virginians, Pleasants wrote to Patrick Henry, inviting him to join the Society: “I expect thee will have seen [our notices] in the papers directed to the friends of liberty.” Henry and other noted legislators declined the offer to join. The first officers of the society included Robert Pleasants, who served as President, and Quaker James Ladd, Treasurer. James Ladd (who was the uncle of the Elizabeth Ladd, the wife of Samuel P. Parsons who headed up the State Penitentiary) was already active in the anti-slavery movement having signed on behalf of the Friends a petition to end slavery addressed to the Virginia legislature in 1780.
Membership in the Virginia Abolition Society grew to eighty members with the Quakers comprising the majority of the membership along with the Methodists. Robert Pleasants signed a very stirring petition against slavery on behalf of the Society in April 1791 that was sent to the United States Congress: “…your memorialists, fully believing that ‘righteousness exalteth a nation,’ and that slavery is not only an odious degradation, but an outrageous violation of one of the most essential rights of human nature, and utterly repugnant to the precepts of the gospel, which breathes ‘peace on earth, good will to men;’ they lament that a practice, so inconsistent with true policy and the unalienable rights of men, should subsist in so enlightened an age, and among a people professing, that all mankind are, by nature, equally entitled to freedom …” This petition [now found at the Library of Virginia] was one of many petitions sent to Congress that year from abolitionist societies around the country, including those from such Quaker strongholds as Pennsylvania.
In addition to lobbying the Virginia legislature and U.S. Congress to end the practice of slavery, the Virginia Abolition Society was working through the courts to obtain freedom for slaves illegally held in bondage. In one remarkable case, Pleasants v. Pleasants [on file at the Library of Virginia] Robert Pleasants went to court in 1798 suing his own relatives to free hundreds of slaves that were illegally held in bondage after being freed by the will of his father, John Pleasants. One of the slaves freed in this suit was Lucy Miller, whose son’s home survives in the Oregon Hill Historic District, and is perhaps the only surviving ante-bellum house in Richmond that was built and owned by free blacks.
Records show that the Virginia Abolition Society had all but disappeared by 1798. While we do not know the reason for this, we know that in 1798 the Virginia Legislature passed an Act which “disqualified members of societies instituted for emancipating slaves” from sitting on juries to hear slave suits for freedom. The Act may have discouraged membership in the abolition society.
The remarkable work of the Virginia Abolition Society is not well known today. A new park has been named for Robert Pleasants in the Oregon Hill Historic District, and hopefully some interpretive information concerning the Society will eventually be installed in recognition and appreciation for the noble contributions of this courageous group.
Prepared by Charles Pool
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Readers might enjoy too looking at www.oregonhill.org for more about Robert Pleasants, the founder of the VA Abolition Society. Oregon Hill has dedicated a park in his honor at 401 South Laurel Street behind the Pine Street Baptist Church. You will also find on this site a letter from Robert Pleasants, information about Quaker Samuel Parsons, who lived in Oregon Hill, and other fun material about the neighborhood.
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