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In Pa., Slavery Protest Came Early

By Raymond M. Lane
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"I was about 8 years old, and it seemed kind of bizarre," remembered Kathy Nicholson Paulmier, 48, a teacher at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.

She recalled how her Quaker father, Chris Nicholson, took her and her two brothers once a year in spring to stand in front of the Thones Kunders home, a townhouse put up in 1684 by Dutch immigrants. In her girlhood, it stood on a cobblestone street corner down the block from her family's home.

Her dad had them read aloud from a document that had been written in the Kunders house, words that young Paulmier thought sounded like gibberish. "People would walk by and kind of stare at us reading this really strange stuff," she said.

On a bright Saturday morning recently, she stood on the same street corner with students in her seventh-grade history class and read from the document.

"These are the reasons why we are against the traffik of men-body," begins what's called the Germantown Protest of 1688, scrawled on both sides of a single sheet of paper using language and spelling that had been only recently acquired by its German- and Dutch-born authors.

"For we hear that ye most part of such negers are brought heither against their will & consent and that many of them are stollen," the newcomers wrote. "Now tho they are black, we can not conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones."

The four signers of the Protest led a community of about 25 immigrant Mennonite families recruited by William Penn, the English Quaker who founded Pennsylvania in 1681. Penn scoured Europe for settlers, promising freedom of religion. The widely persecuted Mennonites converted to Quakerism and shipped out. (Penn didn't tell them he oversaw a slaving business in his prospering new colony.)

Some months after being drafted, the Protest was considered by the Yearly Meeting of Pennsylvania Quakers. They decided slavery was too big an issue to address at that time, and the paper was tucked into a file, although the Quakers were soon to be instrumental in outlawing slavery in Pennsylvania. In 1844, Abolitionists rediscovered the letter in a Philadelphia archive and used it as propaganda for their cause. But soon it was lost again.

And the Kunders house? It was flattened in the 1980s to make way for a shopping center, but Paulmier said the table on which the Protest was written was saved and kept just up Germantown Avenue at the old Mennonite meeting house.

A walk uphill along Germantown Avenue revealed the stone meeting house. Squat and unadorned, the 1770 building is the oldest Mennonite building in America.

"I never heard of the Protest until I started working here two years ago," said Christopher Friesen, 30, director of programming at the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust. Opening the door to his only visitor of the day, he led me to the back room, where the Protest table stood in afternoon sunlight.

No visitor had ever asked to see it, Friesen said. But, he added, that might be because "in the end . . . nothing happened. Everybody kept their slaves, and the protesters left the Quakers to become Mennonites."

Katharine Gerbner, a teaching assistant at Harvard University who has written about the Kunders document, argues differently.

She says she thinks the significance of the Protest is that it was the first explicit public declaration condemning slavery of Africans based on the secular concept that all humans have inalienable rights. It is "the foundation of our current society . . . what the world aspires to."

After being used as a recruitment tool by abolitionists up until the Civil War, the Protest was filed away and forgotten by Philadelphia Quakers. But finding it was the passion of Chris Nicholson, the father of schoolteacher Paulmier.

"The elders used to walk us down to the old [Kunders] house, and they'd read the document to each other," remembered Nicholson, 80, a native of Germantown who believes his ancestors freed their African slaves by 1710. "I wanted my kids to know the story, too."

After prodding by Nicholson and other Germantown Quakers, searchers found the document and had it restored. In 2006, it was given to Haverford College, outside Philadelphia. Haverford and nearby Swarthmore College, another Quaker-founded school, hold the world's largest collection of historic documents concerning Quakers in America.

"You should see it," Nicholson said.

And I did, phoning ahead before driving to Haverford. There in the quiet of the library's special collections room, the Protest sat raised on a table before me.

"We let anyone who asks see it," said John F. Anderies, 41, the school's archivist.

Yellowed and ragged, faded and nearly indecipherable, the plastic-wrapped Protest still pierces the heart:

"These are the reasons why we are against the traffik of men-body."

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