The incredible story of a forgotten hero of nineteenth century New York City—a former slave, Yale scholar, minister, and international leader of the Antebellum abolitionist movement.
At the age of 19, scared and illiterate, James Pennington escaped from slavery in 1827 and soon became one of the leading voices against slavery prior to the Civil War. Just ten years after his escape, Pennington was ordained as a priest after studying at Yale and was soon traveling all over the world as an anti-slavery advocate. He was so well respected by European audiences that the University of Heidelberg awarded him an honorary doctorate, making him the first person of African descent to receive such a degree. This treatment was far cry from his home across the Atlantic, where people like him, although no longer slaves, were still second-class citizens.
As he fought for equal rights in America, Pennington's voice was not limited to the preacher's pulpit. He wrote the first-ever "History of the Colored People" as well as a careful study of the moral basis for civil disobedience, which would be echoed decades later by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. More than a century before Rosa Parks took her monumental bus ride, Pennington challenged segregated seating in New York City street cars. He was beaten and arrested, but eventually vindicated when the New York State Supreme Court ordered the cars to be integrated. Although the struggle for equality was far from over, Pennington retained a delightful sense of humor, intellectual vivacity, and inspiring faith through it all. American to the Backbone brings to life this fascinating, forgotten pioneer, who helped lay the foundation for the contemporary civil rights revolution and inspire generations of future leaders.
Christopher Webber is the author of more than two dozen books, including Reinventing Marriage and Beyond Beowulf. A graduate of Princeton University and a priest of the Episcopal Church, Webber has served parishes in New York and Connecticut and has also written several hymns. His interest in James W. C. Pennington developed while compiling A Yearbook of American Saints. Webber lives with his wife on an old farm in northwestern Connecticut.