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Author shares 'astonishing' tale of Washington County slave who rose to prominence

At benefit event, Christopher Webber tells story of James W.C. Pennington, who escaped from Rockland Estate and became noted abolitionist

July 15, 2011|By DAVE McMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com
  • Christopher Webber reads a passage from his book, "American to the Backbone," about James W.C. Pennington, Thursday during a lecture and book signing at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — “Astonishing” is how Christopher L. Webber characterizes James W.C. Pennington, a slave at the Rockland Estate south of Hagerstown in the 1800s who escaped and went on to become a Presbyterian minister and delegate to international abolitionist conventions.

Webber, a Princeton University graduate who has written a book about Pennington, spoke about the book and the life of Pennington Thursday night at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Proceeds from the event were to benefit the Washington County Free Library’s Western Maryland Room and the museum’s children’s educational programs.

Webber accompanied a talk about Pennington with a visual presentation that included a wanted notice that was posted when Pennington escaped. Pennington was described in the notice as being “very black, square and clumsily made.”

The notice went onto to say that Pennington had a “down look” and “mumbles or talks with his teeth closed.”

Webber, talking to an audience of about 20 people, related Pennington’s words once he had escaped from Rockland Estate.

Pennington said it took him two years to “unshackle his mind” from his experiences and it took four years before he was free of the “crouching aspect of slavery,” according to Webber.

Pennington eventually learned to read and write and became fascinated with public speaking, Webber said. He went on to be a delegate to an international convention on slavery in London in 1843, at which he represented some abolitionist societies in Connecticut, said Webber, who has written a number of other books ranging from a guidebook for vestries to a study of Christian marriage.

Then, Pennington was talking with dukes and earls about the issue of slavery, Webber said.

“It’s just an astonishing thing,” said Webber.

Webber signed copies of his book “American to the Backbone” after his talk.

Webber is also a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York who has written hymns included in several major hymnals in the United States and Canada.

Before he went on to be a leading 19th-century abolitionist, Pennington was owned by Frisby Tilghman, founder of the village of Tilghmanton, south of Hagerstown.

Pennington chronicled his 1827 escape from Rockland in his autobiography, "The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W.C. Pennington." The book is among a slim set of accounts written by slaves, part of a popular 19th century nonfiction genre known as the slave narrative.

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