The Philadelphia Police, Past & Present
Library of Congress
This text is one of the most complete reviews of the history of the Philadelphia Police Department from 1609 to 1885, and is not without its biases. It chronicles the development of the Philadelphia police from paid watchmen in the 18th century. Howard O. Sprogle was the author of this book. Very little information is known about Sprogle, despite this text being popularly cited in legal, academic, and historical sources. He is described as a friend of the mayor at the time, a news editor, and a former district attorney. The history of the Philadelphia Police Department is a winding road, which encountered many developments and revisions. Most notably, as the book details, the Police Department was grown and strengthened under the direction of mayor Alexander Henry in the 1850s.
Journal entry, January 16, 1856, in Journal C of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia kept by William Still : containing notices of arrivals of fugitive slaves in Philadelphia with descriptions of their flight, 1852-1857
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Treasures Collection
William Still (1821–1902) operated as an agent for the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia. Still assisted nearly 1,000 fugitives in the 1850s. In 1872, he published his records from this period, in which he documented names, physical characteristics, personalities, and stories from those who passed through Philadelphia. They give a vivid picture of the lives lived and stories told through the dangerous work of the Underground Railroad.
William Still was a part of the Vigilance Association of Philadelphia, also known as the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. This underground group aided the intricate network of Underground Railroad stations, conductors, and fundraisers in Philadelphia. Together they facilitated the safe passage of enslaved people heading northbound, and provided food, money, supplies, and other resources.
Aiding fugitives was dangerous, risky, and illegal work. Therefore the networks developed to serve this purpose are shrouded in mystery. However, Still’s work and earlier documentation shed light on their operations.
The Vigilance Committee was truly a mutual aid effort through and through and not unlike mutual aid, legal counsel, and autonomous collectives today.
Immediate, not gradual abolition
Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society,1837
Library Company of Philadelphia
“Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition” was a pamphlet published by English Abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick in 1824. There were two types of Abolitionists at this time: Gradualists and Immediate Abolitionists. Gradualists believed that slavery could be slowly taken down through legislation, and, in England, this included improving the conditions of plantations instead of emancipating enslaved people. In the United States, gradualists feared the collapse of the economy in the South. On the other side, Immediate Abolitionists believed that liberation could not wait. On page 19, Heyrick’s plea for immediate emancipation of enslaved people highlights the cruelty and urgency of the situation: “In the meantime, let the abolitionists remember, while they are reasoning and declaiming and petitioning Parliament for gradual emancipation, let them remember that the miseries they deplore remain unmitigated—the crimes they execrate are still perpetuated.”
The Slavery Abolition Act of England is passed in 1833. It is around this time that the text circulates through the United States, as made apparent by this 1837 re-print, inspiring Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. Today, it is worth considering if reforming our police and prisons is any different than the debate to reform plantations in the past. What matters more: people or capital?
Works from For the Love of Community: Abolition, Archives, and Art Workshop (2021-2022)
Malkia Okech, Silvia Canelon, Kwaku Owusu, Kyle Sheppard
In December 2021 and February 2022, Malkia Okech hosted two community workshops, one along with activist and artist Cyè Jacobs. Malkia presented her research, provided copies of archival documents ranging from the 19th to 21st centuries, and guided participants in creating new work out of them. The workshop invited participants to consider new worlds free from oppression as represented in police documents and rooted in history as represented by activist documents. Participants brought magazines and other materials to supplement their work. The result was a wide range of freedom dreams.
No Police - BLM (2020)
Courtesy of the artist
This protest sign was made by Coltrane Love, who was 6 years old when he crafted it amidst the 2020 George Floyd Uprisings. His parents, Anyabwile and Shivon Love, let me know that he came up with the idea from scratch. Reflecting a youthful energy that was very much a fundamental part of the Uprisings, “No Police – BLM” is an enduring message of the nationwide struggle to address police brutality, white supremacy, and racial capitalism.
"A Bold Stroke for Freedom”
This engraving depicts a group of fugitives on their way to Philadelphia, defending themselves against slave catchers. Four members of the group are armed, while one steers a wagon. On the other side are five slave catchers, pivoting away from a group which they could not manage to capture. This image is referenced in William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1872). This book documented names, physical characteristics, personalities, and stories from those who passed through Philadelphia. While sources connect this engraving to a few different stories from Still’s book, the entry from January 16, 1856 matches up well: “They Fugitives being strongly armed and determined on to gaining their liberty or death, resolutely drew their Pistols (double barrelled) and said they would not be taken.” This is survival, by any means necessary.