James William Charles Pennington was an Black American orator, minister, writer, and abolitionist.
James W. C. Pennington was born into slavery in 1807, on the Tilghman Plantation on the eastern shores of Maryland. When Pennington was four-years-old his mother was given to Frisby Tilghman, the Pennington owner son, as a wedding gift. They were taken to Rockland near Hagerstown in Western Maryland. Where Pennington was trained as an carpenter and blacksmith.
On October 28, 1827, at the age nineteen, Pennington escape bondage and was successful at doing so. In 1828, Pennington made his way North to Brooklyn, New York. Free from bondage Pennington found work as a coachman for a wealthy lawyer. Pennington wanted to learn so, began teaching himself how to read, write, as well as Latin and Greek. attended the first National Negro Convention in Philadelphia in 1831, where he met other Prominent Black Americans. Pennington became deeply involved in the abolitionist movement. Pennington also continued to be active in the Negro Convention Movement, becoming the presiding officer in 1853.
In 1840, at the age thirty-three, Pennington was called by the Talcott Street Church (now called Faith Congregational Church), in Hartford, Connecticut. While serving as minister, Pennington wrote the book on history of Black Americans, called “The Origins and History of Colored People“. Pennington was selected as a delegate to the Second World Conference on Slavery in London. After the conference he returned to Hartford, Connecticut after begin invited to preach and serve communion in churches. Pennington later persuaded his white colleagues to include him in their pulpit exchanges. He was the first Black pastor to preach in a number of Connecticut White Churches.
Pennington became good friends with a white man named, John Hooker and confiding in him in 1844 his status as a fugitive slave and concern about his future. Hooker opened secret negotiations with his former owner, Frisby Tilghman, but he and Pennington did not then have the $500 demanded by the master, who died soon after the negotiation attempt. On September 18, 1850, at the age forty-three the Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the United States Congress. The law required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law and prosecution of fugitive slaves. Pennington happened to be in Scotland when the law was passed, which increased the threat to him as a fugitive. Pennington was called to New York in 1850 to serve the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, he feared returning while at such risk. Hooker worked with abolitionists in England to raise money to purchase Pennington from Tilghman’s estate (the planter had died). Friends of Pennington in Dunse, Berwickshire, in Scotland to help raised the funds. Hooker briefly took “ownership” of Pennington in order to manumit him to the United States.
After returning to the United States, Pennington helped form a committee to protest the segregation of the New York City (including Brooklyn) street car system; schoolteacher Elizabeth Jennings Graham (March 1827 – June 8, 1901),
had been arrested in 1854 for using a street car reserved for whites. Several private companies operated all the street cars and segregated blacks in seating. Jennings’ case was settled in her favor in February 1855 by the Brooklyn Circuit Court. When Pennington was arrested and convicted in 1859 for riding in a “white only” street car operated by another company, he was represented by the Legal Rights Association, formed by him, Thomas L. Jennings (1791 – February 12, 1859), and James McCune Smith (April 18, 1813 – November 17, 1865). It challenged the system successfully and on appeal, gained an 1855 ruling by the State Supreme Court that such segregation was illegal and must end. By 1865, after starts and stops, all the street car companies had desegregated their systems.
During the American Civil War, Pennington helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. When the war was over, he served for a short time as a minister in Natchez, Mississippi. Next Pennington was called to Portland, Maine, where he served as an minister for three years.
Early in 1870, he returned to the South, where he had been appointed by the Presbyterian Church to serve in Florida.
He later organized an African-American congregation in Jacksonville, Florida. James William Charles Pennington died Jacksonville, Florida on October 22, 1870, after a short illness, at the age sixty-three.