This is the Pennsylvania AntiSlavery Society in 1851. You might recognize Lucretia Mott, front row in the bonnet between her husband James and Robert Purvis. But who are the other women? And why is this building on fire? Long thread.
The four other women in this picture had politics as radical as Lucretia Mott’s — and their personal lives were even more unusual. Today, meet Sarah Pugh.
Sarah Pugh was 35 years old when she heard British abolitionist George Thompson speak and was converted to the cause. Until then she had spent her life teaching; by 1829 she ran a Quaker school with two close friends, Rachel Peirce and Sarah Lewis. Lewis joined her in the cause and they soon devoted themselves to running the newly-formed Philadelphia Female AntiSlavery Society.
In 1837 Pugh traveled to New York City for the first American Women’s AntiSlavery Convention. The next year she wouldn’t sail for New York - that’s right, sail - as Philadelphia would host the convention. It was to be held at the brand new Pennsylvania Hall, built by the community.
They needed to build a building. You see, no one in town would rent abolitionists space to meet.
So white abolitionists and free people of color bought $20 shares - 2,000 shares in all - and they built their own building. In addition to a lecture hall, it had meeting rooms, galleries, and a bookstore.
The building lasted four days.
Its first big event was the second annual American Women’s AntiSlavery Convention. As the women spoke, a mob surrounded the building and threw rocks at the windows. Later that night, the crowd overran the building and set it on fire.
What upset them so much?
Black and white women and men mingling, women speaking in front of an integrated, co-ed crowd, demanding the immediate abolition of slavery...all of it. Especially the mixed seating, and that Black and white attendees had exited the hall arm-in-arm. (Otherwise the Black attendees would have been lynched.)
The fire department didn’t try to save the building, which was damaged beyond repair. In the investigation that followed, the city blamed the abolitionists. They inflamed the mob by “advocating doctrines repulsive to the moral sense of a large majority of our community.”
The Convention continued the next day. They reconvened in Sarah Pugh’s schoolhouse. And the following year they made a point to hold the convention in Philadelphia again.
The Philadelphia Female AntiSlavery Soc. was integrated from the beginning - Black women like Sarah Mapps Douglass and the Forten and Purvis women were among its founders, and at least 10% of its members. But no Black woman was invited to join the deliberately co-ed delegation to the World AntiSlavery Convention in London.
Sarah Pugh was, though, along with Lucretia Mott and several others.
When they arrived in London the women were warmly welcomed with teas and other social events, but they weren’t welcome to be delegates at the convention.
Sarah Pugh wrote the letter of protest. “While as individuals [the women] return thanks for these favors...as delegates from the bodies appointing them they deeply regret to learn” they will be excluded from acting as “coequals in the advocacy of Universal Liberty.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton wasn’t a delegate, but her husband was. Witnessing the insult to Mott and the other women made a lasting impression on Cady Stanton. Eight years later she and Mott would convene a small women’s rights meeting in Seneca Falls, New York.
Sarah Pugh supported the developing women’s rights movement, but devoted herself to ending slavery.
In abolition Pugh was a doer, not a strategist. She chaired meetings, gathered signatures, and organized the annual craft fairs that funded the movement for 25 years.
She was a witness to history. When Pugh first met Frederick Douglass, he was 24 years old. She met Harriet Jacobs shortly after Lydia Maria Child published Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
In 1855, Pugh and Lucretia Mott acted as bodyguards for Jane Johnson. They surrounded Johnson as she risked her freedom to appear in court after her sensational escape from her enslaver.
After the war Pugh embraced women’s suffrage, though the post-War conflict among suffragists pained her. She tried to stay on good terms with everyone, but privately preferred the daring of the National Woman Suffrage Assoc. to the caution of the American. She signed the National’s 1876 centennial protest Articles of Impeachment.
She doted on Lucretia Mott in the last years of Mott’s life, helping her attend her final women’s rights conference to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Seneca Falls. But Pugh didn’t envy Mott’s husband and many children.
Instead, Pugh created an intentional household of women. She and Sarah Lewis lived together for decades. From 1856-64, Abby Kimber and two other women joined them to form “a pleasant home” on Green Street. The Pennsylvania AntiSlavery Society executive committee met in their parlor.
Pugh was particularly close to Abby Kimber, another member of the 1840 delegation to London. Here, in the photo. >>> They toured freedmen’s schools together after the war. They are buried in the same plot at Fair Hill Burial Ground.
Sarah Pugh’s diaries, excerpted after her death in an admiring book published by her cousins, are a portrait of a wholly independent person. Each year on her birthday she would reflect on the status of her faith, her intellectual life, and what she had accomplished in the world. At a time when almost all women married, Pugh made an unapologetically autonomous life.