“He took me by the hand, as if I had been an old friend. He told us we were too late for the morning cars to New York, and must wait until the evening, or the next morning. He invited me to go home with him, assuring me that his wife would give me a cordial welcome.”
These are the words of a 29 year old woman named Harriett Jacobs. She is referring to the Reverend Jeremiah Durham, whom she had just met for the first time. In the summer of 1842, Harriett Jacobs left her small town home in North Carolina and arrived in Philadelphia, a large city unlike anyplace she had ever seen before. She was virtually penniless, owning little but the clothes on her back. Her poverty, however, was the least of her concerns. Harriett Jacobs, you see, was a slave. She was chattel. She belonged to a lecherous physician in the North Carolina tidewater, a man who had sexually abused her from the time she was 13 or 14 years old. Following years of tribulation unimaginable to 21st century Americans, she escaped her tormenter and arrived in Philadelphia, a city awash with both Abolitionists and fugitive slave hunters.
Harriett’s escape from human bondage was assisted by numerous brave men and women, both black and white. Those who assisted her risked years in prison or worse, but they knew what their humanitarian duty was. Some who risked their lives were fellow slaves. Others were white Southerners who, ashamed of their region’s “peculiar institution,” quietly sought to help its most helpless victims. Others were affluent Abolitionists in the North. The man who took Harriett Jacobs’ hand that night and invited her into his home was none of those. Jeremiah Durham was a free African-American minister of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Philadelphia. Often called the “Mother Bethel” Church, it was possibly the first African-American church in the United States. The church boasted a proud history, and by the 1840’s it was playing an important part in the burgeoning abolition movement.
With Philadelphia situated just a few days by horseback from the slave states of the Upper South, Mother Bethel Church became an important stop on the eastern branch of the Underground Railroad. Jeremiah Durham was an indispensible friend to men and women like Harriett Jacobs. His contribution to the liberty of Americans was no less consequential than that of many more famous Americans whose names and accomplishments appear predominantly in high school textbooks.
Jeremiah Durham risked his own freedom, and quite possibly his life, by coming to the aid of total strangers like Harriett Jacobs. How many Harriett Jacobs’s did he meet during his tenure at Mother Bethel Church? How many hungry, lonely men and women did Jeremiah Durham comfort and feed? How many terrified, hunted men and women in flight from the venality of bondage did Jeremiah Durham save from the whipping post? How many lives did Jeremiah Durham save while following the example of his savior, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of one of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me”?
I am reminded of men and women like Harriett Jacobs and Jeremiah Durham during this month America has designated as Black History Month. As a student of history, I find the stories of men and women like Harriett Jacobs and Jeremiah Durham the ones that animate what could otherwise be dry and sterile. History is much more than the recitation of great deeds by the powerful men who controlled the destiny of nations like puppet masters in a marionette show. History is the story of men and women whose names are anonymous, but whose deeds were full of consequence and meaning.
The same year that Jeremiah Durham ensured the freedom of Harriett Jacobs, John Tyler was president of the United States. Tyler’s administration is rightly studied in the high school history books. As the first man to assume the presidency on the death of his predecessor, he played an important role in defining executive power in the formative years of our government. It was during his administration that the concept of “manifest destiny” took a firm hold of the nation’s consciousness. Tyler’s presence in the history books is well deserved.
As consequential as John Tyler was, however, I wonder if he directly affected any more lives than Jeremiah Durham. I think not. Little is known of this man, but we can surmise that he was born into very modest means, and received an education rare for men of his background. What we know for certain, however, is that he was an active member of abolitionist circles in Philadelphia. The abolitionist Philadelphia Vigilance Committee regularly met in his home to plan financial and logistical assistance for runaway slaves. This was a dangerous undertaking, and members of the Vigilance Committee risked imprisonment and bodily harm on a daily basis.
It seems likely that Jeremiah Durham played a central role in securing the freedom of tens or hundreds of escaped slaves. It seems likely that, as a minister at Mother Bethel Church, Jeremiah Durham played a central role in influencing many others to follow his example. That is an accomplishment worthy of the history books.
The accomplishments of Jeremiah Durham and others like him whose names are absent from the history books make Black History Month a self-evident necessity. The unimaginable suffering, bravery, and sacrifice of women like Harriett Jacobs, another whose name is absent from all the high school texts I’ve seen, makes me, a white man, both humble and proud to be her American compatriot.