Absalom Jones & Richard Allen

by Dana Kester-McCabe

It is interesting to note how many people from Delmarva have had a profound impact on the early Civil Rights movement.

We all know about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. In fact, there are several more Delmarvans I could tell you about. But today I will concentrate on two gentlemen born into colonial slavery here. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen had similar backgrounds. Their paths led them to Philadelphia where they became friends and went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Absalom Jones was born on a plantation called Cedar Town in Sussex County, Delaware, November 7, 1746. As a teen his family was separated and then sold, with all but Absalom being sold to different plantations. Absalom's owner was a merchant who moved them to Philadelphia. Absalom was allowed to go to school and eventually to marry Mary King the slave of a neighbor.

Absalom was an enterprising and ambitious young man. He raised enough money to purchase his wife's freedom and eventually his own. They took the surname of Jones and remained active in the nearby St. George's Methodist Church. This was an evangelical offshoot of the Anglican Church and one of just a few interracial congregations in the city. Absalom became a lay minister, and eventually he and another freed black Richard Allen became two of the first freed African American slaves licensed to preach by their Church.

Richard Allen was also born into captivity. He started his life near Middletown, Delaware on the property of Benjamin Chew, a prominent politician in the Revolutionary War period. Richard was very bright as a child and Chew recognized his potential. So he sold him and the rest of his family to his neighbor Stokley Sturgis, who would give him the freedom and time to learn to read and write. Unfortunately, Richard's family was also split apart with some members being sold away. At the age of 17 Richard and those of his siblings who were still there began attending the local Methodist society meetings which was welcoming to slaves and freed blacks. He is also listed in the rolls of the Continental Army during the Revolution as a non-combatant.

Richard was something of a prodigy because he began preaching at this early age. This did not go over well with area slave holders. But he was further encouraged when a traveling preacher named Reverend Freeborn Garrettson began to travel the Delaware circuit. He was a former slave owner who advocated the abolition of the terrible institution. He convinced Stokley Sturgis of the sinfulness of owning slaves. So Stokely gave his the opportunity to earn enough money to buy their own freedom. By 1780 Richard did just that and took the surname of Allen.

Richard married a woman named Flora who worked tirelessly with him in his ministry. He was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1784 and moved to Philadelphia. Sadly he and Flora did not have any children and she died in 1801 after a long illness. He was married a second time to Sarah Bass who also shared his zeal for the work of the church. Their home became a stop on the Underground Railroad. But let's go back a bit to talk about the founding of their church.

It is not clear exactly when Richard and Absalom met. Absalom had moved to Philadelphia in 1762, more than twenty years before Richard. He was also fourteen years older than his friend. It is likely they met at church and that he served as a sort of mentor and helped Richard get adjusted to life in the big city, introducing him to other prominent black activists.

In 1786, they became disenchanted with the white church that had first allowed them to become part of the congregation. St. George's officials began to enforce segregation of the church, literally pulling praying people off their knees. African American attenders were also restricted to services very early in the morning. Young Richard was a powerful and popular speaker so he was starting to attract large crowds. The church leadership ordered him to move his black followers to a separate space.

Within a year Richard and Absalom decided to split from their church altogether and start their own. They raised the money to buy an empty lot where they began to hold outdoor services. It eventually became the Mother Bethel AME Church which bears the distinction of being the oldest piece of real estate continuously owned by African Americans in the United States. This was also the birthplace of the African Methodist Episcopal Church one of the most important African American institutions in our country. Richard Allen was appointed their first Bishop.

It was also at that time that Richard and Absalom, along with others, organized the Free African Society. What an amazing friendship and working partnership they must have had. In 1793 the Free African Society under the leadership of Richard and Absalom was instrumental in saving many lives during the terrible Yellow Fever Epidemic.

Over time the Methodist Church hierarchy did not warm to the new church that Richard and Absalom had formed. They repeatedly tried to interfere. Richard turned to the courts and successfully argued a case for their independence in 1807 and again in 1815.

In 1830 Richard presided over the "The First Convention of the People of Colour" which further helped free blacks to organize politically and advocate for the abolition of slavery. Absalom and Richard with the help of their families and friends gave form to a movement that was crucial to our country. Their extraordinary friendship was dedicated to helping others, to attain freedom.

Both are honored with historical markers at their places of birth in Delaware. And in 2016 Bishop Richard Allen will be honored with a commemorative stamp issued by the US Postal service. It is the 39th stamp in the Black Heritage series and will be a first class "forever" stamp, which means it can always be used at whatever those stamps' going rate is.


Absalom Jones

Absalom Jones: Priest, 1818
The Episcopal Church

Portrait of Absalom Jones
PBS - Delaware Art Museum

Absalom Jones
The Historical Marker Database

Bishop Richard Allen
From Wikipedia

Richard Allen
US Postal Service

Bishop Richard Allen
The Historical Marker Database

Our History
The African Methodist Episcopal Church

October 22, 1831 - First Annual Convention of the People of Color - Minutes and Proceedings
The Liberator Files
Boston-based Abolitionist newspaper, published by William Lloyd Garrison, 1831-1865

Free African Society

Benjamin Chew