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A look at life of Stephen Gloucester

By the time Frederick Douglass rose to speak, 800 black Philadelphians had crammed the room. Others stood on Seventh Street and craned their necks to hear Douglass accuse America's churches of coddling slavery.

By the time Frederick Douglass rose to speak, 800 black Philadelphians had crammed the room. Others stood on Seventh Street and craned their necks to hear Douglass accuse America's churches of coddling slavery.

In particular, he railed about the Rev. Stephen Gloucester - a black man.

Like Douglass, Gloucester was born in slavery. Like Douglass, he became part of the Underground Railroad. And like Douglass, he suffered bruises and broken bones for his role in that rare and uncelebrated clique of pre-Civil War Americans, the black abolitionists.

But in the end, unlike Douglass, Stephen Gloucester flinched.

A white mob's 1842 attack on his church left him "broken and dispirited," historians wrote; worse yet, "accommodating." He announced that his pulpit was for "appropriate business," not antislavery speeches. Abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic branded him a sellout. Douglass called him "one of the vilest traitors to his race that ever lived."

Gloucester's long-lost remains were rediscovered in July, buried in the yard of an old Lombard Street church being converted into a luxury home. A look at the life and times of the preacher, who lived from 1803 to 1850 and whose bones were reinterred last week in a Center City ceremony, is a tour of contradictions.

Men of color walked free beneath the gas lamps of antebellum Philadelphia, but at constant risk of being shoved by white men into the sewage-laden street.

Refugees from American slavery and Irish famine lived side by side in the narrow alleys of South Philadelphia, and fought over jobs at the Southwark coalyards and Delaware docks. Antislavery meetings were egged, stoned or stormed. The churches and halls that hosted them became targets for arsonists. Black intellectuals were wined and dined in London and Edinburgh, only to be thrown off horse-drawn omnibuses in Philadelphia.

Amid all of that, who was Stephen Gloucester?

His father, growing up in slavery, showed such talent that he caught the eye of a white minister, who groomed him for church work and eventually arranged for his freedom. That meant John Gloucester was free in Philadelphia while his wife and children remained in chains in the South.

So he worked and saved and borrowed, year by year, until he could buy his loved ones. This was a far more common, and slower, route to freedom than the Underground Railroad.

John Gloucester founded the nation's first black Presbyterian church, at Seventh and Bainbridge Streets, in 1807 and became its pastor.

His son Stephen followed closely in his footsteps and by 1842 was pastor of his own church, leader of its Sunday school, and founder of a rare all-black antislavery society. He helped publish a black newspaper, the Colored American. He lectured about the evils of debauchery and drink.

Societies dedicated to temperance, literature, benevolence and fraternity had become the rage. By the late 1840s, black Philadelphians had formed 106 such groups. As many as a thousand of the city's 20,000 African Americans were said to have sworn off drink, and liquor sales in the city's southern tier plunged.

Which may help explain what happened in August 1842.

Ministers and other black leaders organized a temperance parade. Twelve hundred people marched. Rumors flew about the banner they carried - did it depict slaves revolting as a city burned? It did not. But before the marchers could reach Independence Hall, crowds of white men assaulted them.

Dozens of blacks were injured. Mobs surged down the alleys and chased people from their homes. Black families fled to the safety of the New Jersey woods. Underground Railroad leader Robert Purvis sent his family to the countryside and sat up all night with a rifle on his lap as whites encircled his house.

Stephen Gloucester's church was burned to the ground.

Newspapers and city leaders blamed the blacks. How dare they march? Black abolitionists despaired. Purvis wrote to a friend, "We are as nothing in the public estimation."

As for Gloucester, "This poor guy was stuck with guilt by association," said Julie Winch, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and an authority on African American life in 19th-century Philadelphia. "He and his church were not part of the temperance march. He was out of town."

Worse yet, she said, "they had just finished paying for his church. What was he going to do?"

He asked the city to compensate the loss, arguing that "our church and pulpit have been used on all occasions for the appropriate business of worshipping God." No one doubted what Gloucester meant: We don't preach against slavery.

Purvis, Douglass and others were astonished. All of them had carried on despite beatings and burnings. Gloucester's church had not been the first, even the second, Philadelphia edifice destroyed by anti-black mobs.

Then word came from the British Isles of Gloucester's next move. Desperate to rebuild his church, he was accepting money from the Free Church of Scotland.

This church had been financed in part by American slaveholders - "bloodstained money," Douglass called it. He and others accused Gloucester of "sacrificing principle for filthy lucre in the trial-hour of '42."

Gloucester found himself "hooted down," as Winch put it. "No one listened to him." She said the events may have speeded his physical decline.

Parts of Gloucester's story survive in the writings of another preacher, William T. Catto. He, too, was a rare bird - an African American who wrote a book published before 1860. Catto wrote a history of the church Gloucester's father founded, First African Presbyterian, which last year celebrated its bicentennial at its modern location, 42d Street and Girard Avenue.

Catto also helped write the report of the 1848 meeting in which Douglass condemned Gloucester.

In his final years, Gloucester did manage to open a new church, Lombard Central Presbyterian, in the 800 block of Lombard Street. He died of pneumonia two years later, at age 47.

"Exhaustion," said Winch, "was probably the root cause of his demise."