The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first American society dedicated to the cause of abolition, is founded in Philadelphia on this day in 1775. The society changes its name to the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage in 1784.
Leading Quaker educator and abolitionist Anthony Benezet called the society together two years after he persuaded the Quakers to create the Negro School at Philadelphia. Benezet was born in France to a Huguenot (French Protestant) family that had fled to London in order to avoid persecution at the hands of French Catholics. The family eventually migrated to Philadelphia when Benezet was 17. There, he joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) and began a career as an educator. In 1750, Benezet began teaching slave children in his home after regular school hours, and in 1754, established the first girls’ school in America. With the help of fellow Quaker John Woolman, Benezet persuaded the Philadelphia Quaker Yearly Meeting to take an official stance against slavery in 1758.
Benezet’s argument for abolition found a trans-Atlantic audience with the publication of his tract Some Historical Account of Guinea, written in 1772. Benezet counted Benjamin Franklin and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, among his sympathetic correspondents. He died in 1784; his funeral was attended by 400 black Philadelphians. His society was renamed in that year, and in 1787, Benjamin Franklin lent his prestige to the organization, serving as its president.