A richly detailed, wide-ranging biography of a modestly neglected black religious leader who was born a slave.
After discovering W.C. Pennington’s 1849 autobiography, minister and prolific author Webber (editor: An American Prayer Book, 2008, etc.) delved into the archives to learn about this pre–Civil War preacher, educator and abolitionist. Pennington fled north at the age of 19. Illiterate and so ignorant he had never heard of the Underground Railroad, he encountered it after reaching the North. Sympathetic members provided shelter and introduced him to both education and Christianity, which he embraced enthusiastically. Within five years, he was teaching, preaching and participating in the earliest national black-activist organizations. Despite his energy, Pennington lacked the quirks and charisma of contemporaries such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Fortunately, he lived in interesting times, so readers will encounter the familiar, turbulent, but ultimately successful fight for abolition along with the discouraging, far less successful struggle for black civil rights in the North. By 1860, only six northern states permitted blacks to vote; none could serve on juries. Pennington was regularly refused service in restaurants, forced to ride baggage cars on trains, refused admittance or thrown off trams and directed to the “colored section” when attending white churches—even those whose ministers supported abolition. His protests mostly involved speeches, sermons and essays, which readers may prefer to skim; efforts at legal or political action failed as often as they succeeded.Webber’s decision to cast his net widely has produced an important biography as well as insight into the pre–Civil War free-black subculture.