Celebrations in New York

On December 2, a large group of African Americans met at the African Free School, founded in 1787 by Free Blacks in New York City. As "unhappy victims" of the trade who were convinced that all "men are born free," they decided to celebrate January 1, 1808, with "demonstrations of gratitude and thanksgiving." They praised the abolitionists and the government, and appointed a committee of twelve to make arrangements to celebrate "the day which terminates the Slave Trade in this country."

Accordingly, on January 1, African Americans gathered at the African Church, which became the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, to commemorate the event. Abraham Thompson, a minister, opened the celebration with a "solemn address to Almighty God." After an anthem, Henry Sipkins — secretary of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, incorporated later that year — read the "Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves."

Then it was the turn of Peter Williams Jr. to deliver the keynote address. Born in New Jersey to a woman from the island of St. Kitts and a veteran of the Revolutionary War, the young man attended the African Free School and went on to organize St. Philip's African Church in Harlem in 1818. On that day in January, he presented himself proudly as a descendant of Africa."

In his speech, An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade," which he addressed to us, Africans and descendants of Africans," Williams painted an idyllic image of Africa before European intrusion and went on to explain the workings of the slave trade on the African side in a manner that is utterly consistent with modern scholarship. He then described the horrors of the slave trade, calling upon the Africans who had suffered through the Middle Passage to share their memories and asking those whose ancestors had experienced it to try to imagine its dreadfulness.

Williams thanked the abolitionists, the Quakers John Woolman and Anthony Benezet in particular, and reminded those present to show a steady and upright deportment" and respect for the laws of the land in order to express their gratitude and not injure their cause in the face of resolute opponents.

The morning service ended with a hymn and an address by Rev. Thomas Miller, who, like the other speakers, belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the afternoon, the hymns, prayers, and sermons continued. Two sermons were given by James Varick, who became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1822.