Documentary ‘Sisters in Freedom’ Tells the Story of Philadelphia’s Black and White Female Abolitionists

What stories do people know most about Philadelphia? Benjamin Franklin as a founding father? Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence? Rocky atop the steps of the art museum?

Usually, the historical stories — and even the famous fictional ones — feature men as the central focus.

The documentary Sisters in Freedom however, tells lesser-known stories of Philadelphia female abolitionists — black and white — who worked to end slavery in the face of fierce opposition, even to the idea of women speaking in public.

“They were so consequential in moving the national debate toward the abolition of slavery,” said Andrew Ferrett, a co-director of the film, which has its next screening Thursday. “We wanted to make a dedicated film about women’s history in Philadelphia.”

These Philadelphia women, among the first in the nation to form an interracial, women’s anti-slavery society, included Sarah Mapps Douglass, Charlotte Forten and her daughter Harriet Forten Purvis — free, middle-class African American activists and feminists — and Lucretia Mott, Angelina Grimké Weld, and her sister Sarah Moore Grimke, who were white Quaker feminists. All encountered racist violence and threats as they organized for the cause.

At a screening last month at the Lucien Blackwell library branch in West Philadelphia, social worker Valerie Anderson showed selected clips to a dozen children after school.

One 14-year-old student said he had never heard the word abolitionist before. Caden Penn, 10, a fifth-grader at Hardy Williams Mastery Charter School, said learning about female activists was interesting.

“They went door to door, getting people to sign petitions to stop slavery,” Caden said.

Women formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society on Dec. 9, 1833, three days after the male-dominated American Anti-Slavery Society made clear at its first meeting that women would not have leadership roles.

The women wrote letters and published articles denouncing slavery. They shocked proper society by speaking in public and asking strangers to sign their petitions. They angered Congress by flooding it with so many petitions that legislators instituted a gag rule to table any petitions against slavery without discussion.

At the library, many younger children didn’t understand the timeline of the fight for freedom from slavery, Anderson said.

“They don’t have a sense of this period,” she said. “Their knowledge of black history fast-forwards to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.”

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Source: Philly Inquirer