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The following is a synopsis of a talk given to the Society by David McLean.
The story of James Pennington is
one of the most unlikely ever associated with the town and people of Duns. Born
in 1807, he grew up as a slave on a Maryland plantation called Rockland,
witnessing all the worst aspects of the ‘peculiar institution’ – families
split up and men and women flogged, often for minor failings. At the age of 21,
he ran away from his hopeless life of servitude to relative safety in the
bustling city of New York.
On his escape journey north, he
had spent time with a Quaker couple who taught him to read and write and were
instrumental in his commitment to the Christian faith. With his heart set on
becoming a minister, he sought out every possible educational opportunity and
was eventually allowed (unofficially) to sit at the back of divinity classes at
Yale University. He was licensed as a preacher in 1838 – a man who had been an
illiterate slave only ten years before.
He proved to be an able and
devoted pastor and was soon campaigning against the prejudice and discrimination
which the black population of the northern states suffered at every turn. He
increasingly became a voice for the black community and went on to become one of
the most respected and distinguished African-American leaders of his time.
Pennington was one of the many
ex-slave speakers who came to Britain in the 1840s and 1850s. Their task was to
stir abolitionist sentiment at both popular and government levels against the
slave trade and slavery wherever it still existed in the world – but
especially in the USA. They also took the opportunity of the lucrative speaking
circuit of Victorian times to raise money for good causes such as their
congregations back home. By the end of 1849, Pennington had made his temporary
home in Scotland. By now, he was well-known on both sides of the Atlantic which
did him no favours when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in the USA in the
autumn of 1850; if he returned to America, he was liable to arrest and a return
The people of the Scottish
Borders, especially the inhabitants of Dunse (as it was known in those days),
then played a key role. Pennington was by this time a familiar figure in Duns,
having become firm friends with William Ritchie, the minister of the East United
Presbyterian congregation in the town. The two men shared common interests not
just in their ministries but also in their commitment to the abolition cause and
to the temperance movement.
A Duns resident (John Turnbull,
probably a cloth merchant living in the town’s Market Place) suggested raising
funds to purchase Pennington’s freedom so that he might be able to safely
return to the United States as a free man. A committee was formed and a number
of United Presbyterian congregations in Duns, Kelso and Berwick set about
raising the necessary money.
On the American side of the
ocean, they were helped by a young lawyer and friend of Pennington’s called
John Hooker. He discovered that the Rockland estate was being wound up by an
executor who agreed to sell Pennington for $150 (about £55 in British money).
Within three months, the Borders congregations had raised almost twice the money
they required – far and away the lion’s share of it by the people of Duns
– and the requested funds were despatched to the USA (all communications
between the two countries having to be carried by ship, of course).
By the summer of 1851, the legal
documents making Pennington a free man had been received in Scotland. A special
ceremony was held on 26 June in the East UP Church in Duns to present Pennington
with his freedom papers. The Kelso Chronicle recorded that the meeting was
‘crowded to excess’ which suggests that perhaps over 700 people had crammed
into the church. Speeches were made, people were thanked and it must have been
an emotional moment when James Pennington stepped forward to take the documents
which pronounced his liberty and his arrival ‘among the ranks of free men’.
Since Pennington had now been absent from his homeland (and his congregation) for the better part of two years, he was not long in saying farewell to his friends in Scotland and travelling to Liverpool to take a ship back to the USA. His departure brought to a conclusion one of the most compelling stories ever of Duns and its people – an unlikely and long-forgotten story but, fortunately, one which was not lost forever.
The Church at 53 Easter Street, originally the First Secession or Antiburgher Church was built in the early 1740s. In the 1830s a larger Church was built on the same site with seating for 650 persons. However by 1932 numbers were falling and the site was sold to become a cinema and the building was demolished in about 1960 following a fire. Unfortunately no image of the Church building seems to have survived. For more information on the Churches in Duns
A pulpit bible which had belonged to Pennington with an accompanying plaque was recently presented by the Faith Congregational Church of Hartford, Connecticut to the newly opened African American Museum (part of the Smithsonian) in Washington, DC. To view a video of the opening by President Obama - http://youtu.be/hF8KEHipLQ4