THE FIREBIRD OF OUR HEARTS
KIMBERTON ABOLITIONIST, SCIENTIST, HUMANITARIAN
THE UNDERGROUND RAIL ROAD SURPRISE
A knock was heard on the door of a well known Kimberton Abolitionist family on a wet and stormy night. Usually escaping slaves would have been received further south in Chester County where they would have felt the first taste of freedom, and new clothes would have been made. A coded letter would have been sent to the next stop northward, which happened often in the Underground Rail Road funnel point of Kimberton. This was often expected at the home Graceanna Lewis lived in …. but not on this night.
Instead, a newly escaped slave, now Freewoman, Rachel Cunningham and her children, stepped into dry surroundings and thereby entered into a new life welcomed by Graceanna Lewis. An abundance of bounty hunters surrounded the Underground Rail Road [UGRR] towns of Kimberton and Phoenixville. There was no place to discard their red-and-white striped cotton slave clothes, lest the blood hounds be given a scent to trail.
There was nothing to do but to get rid of these clothes Rachel wore on her four day journey eluding re-capture. This dress clearly marked her as a fleeing escapee, her children likely wearing the same. They had to be burned.
ABOLITIONISTS TO THE CORE
Graceanna Lewis had been deeply steeped in the anti-slavery lifestyle since her life began in 1821. One of the oldest and boldest Abolitionists in the region was her uncle, Dr. Bartholomew Fussell. He had taught slaves of northern Maryland how to read before it was illegal to do so. In Kimberton, they had been visited by Fussell’s friend Benjamin Luxley, publisher of the very first anti-slavery newspaper.
By her mid-teens, the greatest names of the Abolitionist speaking circuit were friends with her family. Along with the other devout, socially-conscious Hicksite Quakers of Kimberton, she and her sisters, are some of the few women included in the later 1800’s literature that remember the Underground Rail Road.
Graceanna’s young womanhood knew of escaped slaves, or Freemen, that would live on her farm and often work to pay for the train fare to transport their wives and children, before accompanying them later on their route to Canadian safety. Sometimes this lasted for years, as was the case with Rachel, or “Rache”. She became cook for village founder Emmor Kimber, himself very dedicated to the UGRR and ending slavery. Rache married and settled in West Chester.
It was Graceanna’s sister, Rebecca Lewis Fussell, [the first female Medical Doctor in Pennsylvania] who saved the life of the Abolitionist Fredrick Douglass – using her own baby. [!] She held the infant above her head shielding Douglass, who was already struck in the head by an angry mob, before a “mortal blow” would murder the 25 year old Douglass. This family believed in the End of Slavery.
THE SECOND MOST FAMOUS WOMAN OF SCIENCE IN AMERICA
Graceanna, a woman of quiet brilliance and conviction, would transform into a new life after the Civil War, advancing into the Natural Sciences. Her struggles to pioneer in Science were an inspiration for other women of her era before being forgotten in the ashes of History. For a woman who saw such injustice in the world, almost criminal that we have forgotten her now. She herself was known for her comprehensive knowledge of Birds. Through her connections to the Academy of Natural Sciences, a Peruvian Oriole was named after her, a brightly hued bird in the color of yellow flame.
A NEW LIFE BORN BEFORE HER EYES
She was a deeply spiritual person, who as a Quaker believed that, a newly freed slave was a human that was leaving behind more than the physical chattels of slavery – they were also casting off ‘the chains of the Soul’. More than a wet dress that would attract bounty hunters; Graceanna detested the system that forced Rache to wear a dress that locked her into endless servitude.
These women burned these clothes produced with slave-labor, walked back to the house to witness a New Life born before their eyes. The town of Phoenixville had received its name by then. Thus it is not unthinkable that she remembered the Re-Birth and Triumphant Hope of the symbolic Firebird in this simple act. Perhaps the most vivid example of the Phoenix story that this town has experienced – The Ending of Slavery and the New Lives that these actions gave re-birth to. These are the stories that passed through this town, or in Rachel Cunningham’s case, chose to stay.
And what a Life! Graceanna always wrote with a clear and poised pen. She tells how Rache described the circumstances of her escape and the cruelty of her master, using not educated language, but with vivid gestures, sound effects and scurrying around the room. A compassionate ship captain signaled to Rache to follow a cow, that had been un-boarding from the ship, that suddenly bolted into a crowd; Rache’s slip into freedom completed in Kimberton, her sheltered port on a stormy night.
Astonishingly, Rachel Cunningham was student in the Maryland school Dr. Bartholomew taught in years before, but not knowing this fact until her eyes saw the Dr’s face in Kimberton.
Years later, the then married Rache, would have to flee again from her new life in West Chester. An opportunistic bounty-seeker had figured out her past identity. Of course, itself a truly colorful story, her escape and ‘re-moval’ was complete.
THE DARKEST TIME OF ABOLITION
And neither was this to be the last Firebird image Graceanna would pass down to us. In one of the most dramatic moments in Anti-Slavery History, and certainly one of the most dramatic moments of her life, fire claimed the National Headquarters of the Abolitionist Movement in Philadelphia in 1838. She was present.
The Pennsylvania Hall was built by the donations of Anti-Slavery sympathizers, and was the best civic building in Philadelphia. It was burned down three days after it was opened. The mob destroyed this building because it was hosting the American Anti-Slavery Society’s 2nd Convention. Not only was Kimberton and Phoenixville well represented at this gathering, one of the main organizers was Graceanna’s uncle, Dr. Bartholomew Fussell. A featured speaker was Charles C. Burleigh, who had married one of the Kimber daughters. Quakerism had demurred away from the Slavery Question – the Kimberton Hicksite Quakers did not.
As notices had been posted around the city inciting a gathering to interrupt the work of this Convention, all the way “to interfere, forcibly if they must”. A disruptive mob rose to its climax as the Female Anti-Slavery Society convened.
A NEW DAY FOR ALL WOMEN
Of all the Abolitionists, none is more famous than William Lloyd Garrison, a particular friend to the Kimber family. Key to the success he made was recognizing the ability of Women to circulate petitions. Their husbands could easily get harassed or beaten for such things in the early years. The women excited to finally make a contribution into the world. Out of this Convention the decision to push this idea forward was spread across the country.
But something more than that happened because of this meeting, called “The Cradle of Feminism” by the Penn State History Professor, Ira V. Brown. There had been ‘women strikes’ that had oddly sprung up for centuries. This where the wives, sisters and daughters of a city would not cook, run their homes or spend enough on shopping . This could shut down ancient cities and thereby effect policy.
But it was within sight of where the then 50 year-old Constitution was ratified, that for the first time in American History, Women could organize under the 1st Amendment. The petitions they had already made were in direct defiance to the Congressional Gag Rule instituted the year prior. This forbade Congress to debate Slavery in any form whatsoever. These women were thereby doubly motivated to have their repressed voices heard. The very first organized steps of Women asking for Equal Rights ten years before the Seneca Falls Convention occurred. The Philadelphia Quaker and Abolitionist, Lucretia Mott starred at both occasions.
Five years after having his life saved, Fredrick Douglass is credited by Seneca Falls organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as winning the day and convincing that first Women’s Rights Convention to be bold enough to ask for the Vote.
THE FORGOTTEN FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT
In 1896, Graceanna gives us an account of her experiences at Pennsylvania Hall as an impressionable 16 year old that has missed the attention of many historians. How entry to Hall was difficult as they had to push through the crowd suffering many “gross insults”. As tensions mounted, she helped use the collective body weight of the Abolitionists inside the building to lean against the mob pushing in on the door from the outside. She describes a scene of bravery and resolve as 5 women volunteer to leave the safety within, and pass through the door. They would implore the crowd to allow them to exercise their 1st Amendment Rights, each separating from the others as they swam into the angry mob.
Little noted in the historic descriptions of this scene is that the “Liberty Bell”, (newly given that eternal title by the Abolitionists in those same years), rang out a fire warning as the mob broke in, wrecked the Hall and then set fire. The Fire Department was disallowed to do anything more than protect adjacent buildings. All this within the view of Independence Hall, as the Liberty Bell rang.
The Abolitionists that witnessed this seemed to have only deepened in resolve. They were aware of the damage that this did to the Pro-Slavery side of the public debate seeming too willing to rule by “mobocracy”. In truly one of the darkest moments of a young Constitution under duress, belief that in the ashes, embers remained at the footsteps of where the Declaration of Independence was born, and from that a Mighty Bird Would Rise Again.
The keynote speaker of the Female meeting was the transplanted southerner Angelina Grimke, specifically chose Philadelphia when she left the South. Her sister Sarah also published her book, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, in the same year [recently called the first Feminist book by biographer Louise Knight]. The following day Angelina said that she had, “hope that God will overrule evil for good, by causing the flames which consumed that beautiful Hall, dedicated to virtue, liberty, and independence, to light up the fires of freedom on every hilltop and in every valley in the state of Pennsylvania, and our country at large.”
But it is perhaps our own hometown Hero, Graceanna who best summons the indomitable Firebird sentiment in which we share today as she repeated the words she thought as that building was engulphed: “Every particle of ashes created by this flame will build an anti-slavery hall in the hearts of the people.”
In that dark night, an irrepressible Hope reigned. If she could believe like that –
So Can We The People.
This is not History. Our time now produces its own Tests of the Constitution. History is of the Past – This story Speaks To Us – NOW.
“’Tis easy to see, hard to forsee.” – Ben Franklin
What will be Our History?
They Won. Such a cruel reality to her, Slavery is a more distant nightmare to us. She was on the bleeding edge of the realm that ‘Woman’ has advanced further than any other – The Sciences. What they would call the Triumph of the Truth and The Right – Winning in the end.
What do You Seek for in the Dark? What Light will Guide Your Vision?
If you have but One Dream – Bring It – Dream It Together with Us at the Firebird. If You Have But One Grace – Bring It – Help Us Remember Our Graceanna.
Feel Welcome to Join Us, As We Welcome A Firebird Home.
A Story of Persistence, Bravery and Resolve – A Voice that Helped Test and Prove Our Constitution – and a Heart That Helped End American Slavery. Forgotten for Too Long.
Welcome Home Graceanna.
SOMETIMES IN THE ASHES OF FORGOTTEN HISTORY AN EMBER REMAINS
SOMETIMES A FLAME RE-APPEARS
SOMETIMES A FIREBIRD RISES UP AGAIN
THAT BIRD ROARS
James Daily – Kimberton, PA