The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia operated between 1837 and 1852; it was the secret auxiliary of the Vigilant Association. The Vigilant Association was a group formed by Robert Purvis, an ardent abolitionist, in August 1837, to publicly promote antislavery ideology and "to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress." The Vigilant Committee's purpose was to appoint offices, raise revenue, and have resources readily available to assist runaway slaves while they stayed in or passed through Philadelphia. Such assistance could include food, clothes, shelter, transportation, medical attention, and legal fees.
Harboring fugitive slaves, however, was illegal and dangerous. Although Pennsylvania had expanded the rights of fugitives through the passing of Personal Liberty Laws and had passed laws to punish slave-catchers, abolitionists and fugitives could not depend upon the court system to deliver freedom to runaway slaves. In addition, not all northern citizens shared in anti-slavery ideology. They attempted to hinder escapes, reported acts of sheltering runaways, kidnapped runaways for rewards, and, at times, lashed out against those known to assist fugitives. In addition, there were laws that could be used against those assisting the runaways. To protect members and donors from possible reprisal from the slaves' owners or agents, the acts and meetings of the Vigilant Committee were kept secret.
Considerable expenses could be incurred when assisting the runaways. Food and transportation were essential costs, coupled with additional expenses such as clothing, shelter, and medicine. Some of the expenses were met through membership dues. Members were to pay $0.25 upon joining, with the intention of contributing a minimum of $0.75 annually. Additional funds were sought from outside of the organization. To serve this purpose, in a meeting in 1839, Jacob C. White, who was then secretary, was given the role as the Committee's sole agent responsible for collecting revenue from non-members.
At the same meeting during which White received his appointment, Purvis was elected president of the Committee. Purvis's activities outside of the Vigilant Committee were well known throughout the city. This exposure made him a target of an angry mob during the race riot of 1842. Purvis was able to quell the mob long enough to escape without harm. Over the next decade, activists involved with the Vigilant Association included Charles Gardiner and William Still. The organization ceased to exist in 1852. That same year, a new Vigilance Committee was created during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, with Purvis as head of the General Committee.
Scope and content
The records for the Vigilant Committee consist of one volume, divided into two sections. The first section is the "Record of Cases Attended to for the Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia by the Agent." The section consists of nineteen pages and contains records for each of the sixty-two cases in which the committee assisted from June 4, 1839, to March 3, 1840. The entries are brief and typically contain a brief description of the slave, the slave's destination, and the expense incurred.
The first two entries of this volume pertain to a legal case in New Jersey involving the imprisonment of a runaway. Most of the remaining entries deal specifically with the cases for which assistance was provided. A typical entry is from November 1839: "Two cases. One from Bal[timore] the other from Kent attended to by EH. Coates in the absence of agent. Exp carriage 4--." The entry for case number 12 on July 29, 1839, gives a similar summary, but is unusual because it provides the name of the slave: "Woman from vir[ginia] stout make dark complexion at Burlington. Reported by Jos Parrish. Name Mary ann Tilman sent to NY, CV. expense, $3.17."
The majority of the cases involved one runaway, although there were some that involved two or more, such as case number 40 from November 5, 1839: "Eight persons from vir[ginia]. a very interesting Family sent to Canada accompanied by the agent. Nothing was written, however, as to why the agent found the family to be of interest.
Almost all of the cases in which the Vigilant Committee provided assistance involved runaways from Virginia and Maryland. There was one slave who came from New Orleans and one from Delaware. The runaways were predominantly sent to New York and Canada. There were a few exceptions, such as those who were to be sent to Liverpool and Trinidad and another who was to be sent to Liberia.
The second part of the book contains the minutes of the committee's meetings from May 31, 1839, to July 25, 1844. The entries are sporadic and irregular. They contain information about the committee's proceedings, appointments, expenses, and fund raising. The wording of certain activities was cryptic, perhaps to conceal the direct objective of the organization. At the June 10, 1839, meeting, it was resolved "that those persons who entertain strangers of a certain description shall be compensated therefore."
Contained within the minutes are reports similar to those describing the cases at the beginning of the volume. Although the case reports end in March 1840, the minutes reveal that the Committee continued to assist fugitive slaves. At the April 25, 1841, meeting, it was reported that eleven cases had been attended to since the previous meeting held on December 17, 1840. At the September 2, 1841, meeting, it was announced that thirty-two cases were attended to since the June 23rd meeting.
The committee met only two times in 1842, both in January. The group did not meet again until December 28, 1843. The meeting was called for the purpose of reorganizing the Committee and filling vacancies. The Committee also announced its resolution to "adopt more liberal & systematic measures to aid them [slaves] in their efforts to escape." In so doing, the committee also resolved "that it is proper to revive and reconstitute without delay the Vigilance Committee of Phila."
Minutes were taken for five more meetings, the last of which was on July 25, 1844, where it was voted that G.W. Bolivar be substituted in place of Robert Purvis and that Bolivar and two others "were appointed to a committee for the next three months." The circumstances surrounding Purvis's replacement are unknown. What transpired in the following three months is also unknown, for there are no further records of the Committee.
The collection is open for research.
Gift of Leon Gardiner, 1933.
Cite as: Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia Records, 1839-1844 (Collection 1121), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Processed by Steven Smith in August 2003.
Processing made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this finding aid do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
For a transcription of the minutes, see volume 92 of Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, pp. 331-350.
David Paul Brown Papers, Collection 85.
Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Collection 490.
See: Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia Accounts, 1854-1857 (microfilm reel 32).
Barome, Joseph A. "The Vigilant Committee." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 92: 320-351.