(Courtesy Pegasus Books)
New book: American to the Backbone: The Life of James W.C. Pennington, the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists, by Christopher L. Webber ’53 (Pegasus Books)
The author: An ordained minister, Webber is the author of more than two dozen books, including Reinventing Marriage and Beyond Beowulf. He also co-authored A Year with American Saints, stories of 365 men and women who helped shape American life over four centuries. While compiling that book, he developed his interest in James Pennington.
The book: In 1827, at the age of 19, James W.C. Pennington, a slave in Maryland, escaped to freedom. Illiterate at the time, he reached the North and eventually became a preacher, educator, and abolitionist. Ordained a minister after studying at Yale, he travelled the world as an anti-slavery advocate and fought for equal rights in America. He wrote the first-ever “History of the Colored People”and a study of the moral basis for civil disobedience. More than a century before Rosa Parks, he was beaten and arrested when he challenged segregated seating in New York City street cars. Eventually the New York State Supreme Court ordered the cars to be integrated.
Opening lines: “As he stood in the slave quarters of Rockland plantation, six miles south of Hagerstown, Maryland, on a sunny afternoon in late October 1827, James Pembroke [he later changed his name to Pennington] knew that this was the day that would change his life forever. He and the other members of his family had been beaten once too often. He could remain a slave no longer.”
Review: Kirkus called American to the Backbone “a richly detailed, wide-ranging biography” that provides “insight into the pre-Civil War free-black subculture.” Pennington, wrote the critic, “lived in interesting times, so readers will encounter the familiar, turbulent, but ultimately successful fight for abolition along with the discouraging, far less successful struggle for black civil rights in the North.”