by David R. Contosta
I am writing as a long time resident of Whitemarsh Township and as a local historian and member of the Fiends of Abolition Hall. The farmland surrounding Abolition Hall in Plymouth Meeting, which gives the site an essential, historic context, is now threatened with a dense townhouse development.
I would like to quote from the writings of several individuals who were contemporaries or near contemporaries of George Corson, who built Abolition Hall in 1856 and who was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves to escape from their masters to freedom in Canada. I believe their words can give us a sense of “being there” with Corson as he and others fought the scourge of American slavery.
William Still, who was a successful free black businessman in Philadelphia, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and chair of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, kept meticulous records about the local abolition movement, which he published in 1872. Of Corson, he wrote:
“There were perhaps few more dedicated men than George Corson to the interests of the oppressed anywhere. The slave, fleeing from his master, ever found a home with him and felt while there that no slave hunter would get him away until every means of protection should fail. He was ever ready to send his horse and carriage to convey them on the road to Canada, or elsewhere towards freedom.”
According to George’s brother Hiram Corson, George was a man “who knew no fear when in the right.”
Again, in the words of William Still, “[George Corson’s] home was always open to entertain the antislavery advocates…”
As described in the 1884 History of Montgomery County, Corson had, “Determined to build a hall, over which he could have control [on his own private property]. He made quite a large one and furnished it well with seats, warmed and lighted at his own expense. … We can see how convenient it was for the lecturers to make his house their temporary home. As time wore on, more and more neighbors and friends were attracted to the meetings to hear the eloquent and earnest men and who pictured the atrocities of slavery.”
Among the famous abolitionists who spoke in Corson’s hall were Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Lucretia Mott (who also campaigned for women’s rights), and William Lloyd Garrison.
George’s brother Hiram, a medical doctor who was also active in the local abolition movement, later wrote that they often had received harsh treatment from those who opposed their efforts: “Those thirty years or more spent in advocacy of rights and justice to the slave was no holiday picnic. The vilest abuse was heaped upon us; and threats of violence and a resort to boycotting [our businesses] was used.”
It is because of the courage and dedication of these local residents during a time of crisis in this country’s history that we Friends of Abolition Hall are determined to do everything that is legally possible to preserve and protect this national historic treasure so that future generations can learn from and be inspired by it.
David R. Contosta is a Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College. He has written 20 books including, “Suburb in the City: Chestnut Hill Philadelphia” and “Metropolitan Paradise: The Struggle for Nature in the City: Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley, 1620-2020”