Monday, February 8, 2016

Black History Month: Anthony Benezet

The American abolitionist movement owes much to the decision of the Benezet family to uproot themselves from France.

The Benezets were a well-to-do Huguenot (Protestant) family living in Saint-Quentin, France, when their son Anthony was born on January 31, 1713.  Anthony was just two when the family moved to Holland in order to escape religious persecution.  Later, they went to London, where Anthony was educated and became a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends.

In 1731, the Benezets immigrated to Philadelphia, and the sons of the family went into the merchant business.  He married a few years later, and then decided to become a teacher.  Not only did he teach students in the daytime, he began an evening class for poor black children in his own home.  When he saw his students' accomplishments, he knew that the myth of racial inequality was just that, a myth. He taught these children until 1770, when, with the help of the Society of Friends, he started a school for them in Philadelphia.

Until 1755, Benezet taught in a Quaker school.  He was not only concerned about the education black children received; he was very distressed by the inferior education given to women.  So, in 1755, he started the first public girls' school in America.  One young girl, deaf and mute, was a special recipient of Benezet's compassion.  He designed a special program for her so that she, too, could be part of his school.

Perhaps it was compassion and empathy, brought about by his family's experience with religious persecution and his own interactions with children considered "inferior", that drew him into the abolitionist movement.  He read and heard reports from people who traveled.  A Quaker minister, John Woolman, also influenced him to become concerned about slavery.  Benezet started writing to English abolitionists, and he also wrote pieces for newspapers and almanacs on the subject.

Benezet, in his work, insisted on the equality of all people.  He wrote:  "I can with truth and sincerity declare, that I have found amongst the negroes as great a variety of talents as amongst a like number of whites; and I am bold to assert, that the notion entertained by some, that the blacks are inferior in their capacities, is a vulgar prejudice, founded on the pride of ignorance of their lordly masters, who have kept their slaves at such a distance, as to be unable to form a right judgment of them."

Benezet continued to write, and many years later, English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson read his writings.  Clarkson was researching abolitionist works at the time, and said that in Benezet's publications, "I found almost all I wanted."

On May 3, 1784, Anthony Benezet died in Philadelphia.  He left money to continue the work of teaching black children and also to support the fight for justice of those illegally held as slaves.

He wished to be buried in an unmarked grave., and his wish was granted.  However, he did not die unmourned.  Hundreds, representing all religions and races, came to pay their respects.  It was a fitting tribute to a life that was characterized by both compassion for those discriminated against and persecuted and the desire and determination to do something about it.


Sources used:

"Anthony Benezet (1713-1784)", The Abolition Project website
Anthony Benezet Facts," Yourdictionary.com




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