Organizers, Academics Raise Awareness about Pivotal PA Abolitionist Event
Students, faculty, and members of the Ardmore community attended a panel hosted by the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship to learn about the untold history of the Christiana Resistance.
A panel of historians addressed a Lutnick Library audience Sept. 18 with details of the 1851 Christiana Resistance, a bloody confrontation an hour west of Haverford’s campus that lent legitimacy to the nation's growing abolitionist movement, and helped push a morally-divided America toward the Civil War.
Organizers chose the subject both to engage Black residents living near the campus, and to encourage Haverford students to become personally responsible for addressing society’s injustices - key missions of the symposium's host Haverford Center for Peace and Global Citizenship.
Speakers at the afternoon symposium, attended by members of the campus and Ardmore communities, included a Black descendant of one of the principal participants in the long-ago uprising known as the Christiana Resistance. Speakers described how an unwillingness to abide the centuries-long injustice of slavery united Black and White Pennsylvania neighbors in a successful cause
View the entire discussion here
Darlene A. Colón, an independent historian from Lancaster whose great-great-great grandfather had been part of the resistance, addressed the audience as part of the three-person presentation. Hilary Green, a visiting Davidson College historian whose writings examine race and slavery in America, and Haverford History Professor Emeritus Emma Lapsansky-Werner, were the other panelists.
The Christiana Resistance exposed what many consider the principal moral dilemma experienced by citizens of America’s “free states” in the years leading to the Civil War. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act required any American who encountered a runaway to assist in their capture. That posed a particular challenge in pious 19th Century America, where tens of millions of people considered slavery to be an odious offense to their belief in God.
Lapsansky-Werner opened by reading an account of how escaped slaves who had settled among African Americans in the Quaker-influenced Lancaster County village of Christiana were confronted two years later by a band of slave catchers armed with a fugitive slave warrant. Among their pursuers was Edward Gorsuch, their former “master,” whose youngest son was a classmate of eventual assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Within a few chaotic minutes of the September 11, 1851 confrontation, Gorsuch lay shot to death, a son was staggered by multiple gun wounds, and members of the posse were running for their lives. And the potential for multi-racial groups to affect change had again been affirmed.
“The Christiana Riot as it came to be known struck terror in the hearts of slaveholders,” Lapsansky-Werner said, “while inspiring hope and pride in African Americans.”
Lapsansky-Werner told listeners she believes history is best examined by identifying the actions of individuals, rather than through a recounting of events. In that spirit, she introduced Colón, who she lauded as someone who has done the work of historians by preserving the story of Colón's great-great-great-grandfather Ezekiel Thompson, a Black participant in the uprising.
Colón told of how Thompson was involved with Christiana abolitionists who would intervene against an outlaw gang that routinely kidnapped African-Americans in free Pennsylvania and sold them across the border in slave-state Maryland.
Thompson had been among 41 Christiana Resistance participants who were arrested in its aftermath. Prosecutors dropped charges against him and others after the trial of one leader ended in acquittal. Another uprising leader, fugitive slave William Parker, had already escaped to Canada.
Green, herself a Black historian who grew up near Christiana, said while she was a student at Franklin and Marshall College 20 miles west, members of her African Methodist Episcopal church began sharing with her stories about the fateful uprising that had been passed down through families.
“It was in those conversations as a freshman I would hear ‘Have you gone to Christiana yet? Do you know about William Parker?’” Green said.
Jane Murray, an officer of the Ardmore Progressive Civic association, was among several attendees who during a question and answer period said they found the presentation to be both enlightening and deeply moving.
“I was riveted by the stories shared by the speakers about incredible acts of bravery during the Christiana Resistance - history I’d never heard before,” said Murray, who is also a member of The Ardmore - Haverford College’s Advisory Council. “I feel called to action by their urging to find the story that needs to be kept alive - and do it.”
Bukky Olugbeko ‘25, a Political Science major, and a Philadelphia Justice & Equity Fellow (PJEF) was another attendee that felt deeply impacted by the talk.
“This story has not had much shine in historical retellings of the abolitionist struggle”. Olugbeko also thought that the “the insight into this event in history as well as the discussion that followed surrounding collaboration between Black and Quaker communities expanded my thinking of allyship and community building as a Black activist amongst my Quaker community”.