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This Day in History - 9.18.2011

A Speech to End Slavery

​By Brendon Lenzi

On September 18th, 1787, a freed slave by the name of Cyrus Bustill addressed a crowd in Philadelphia. The speech was intended to both rally and calm the city’s frustrated African-American community. Using the Bible, Bustill intended to show that the path to emancipation was one of pacifism and rationality, not violence.

Born in 1732 to parents of mixed ethnicity, Bustill lived in bondage for much of his life. Lucky enough to have been taught a trade, he was able to purchase his own freedom at age 36 with the money he made as a baker. As a free man he used his trade to support the Continental troops, baking bread behind the lines for the soldiers. Rumor has it that he even built a bit of a relationship with General George Washington. In 1787 he helped found the Free African Society, a non-denominational religious group intended to support the spiritual and social needs of the marginalized African-American community of Philadelphia. Raised a Quaker, Bustill found he had a talent for public oration and that the religious forum fit his goals quite well. In his September 18th speech to the people of Philadelphia, Bustill took a stance of civil pacifism, telling the slaves that they need not be violent or angry. Instead, patience and faith in God would bring them their long awaited freedom. “You being in bondage in particular, I would that ye take heed that afend (offend) not with your tongue, be ye wise as Serpents and harmless as Doves, that he may take with you, when you are wrong’d.” Bustill’s belief was that in order to be taken seriously and seen as an equal, one must be serious and act in a manner that earns respect and kindness. It’s not hard to see the connection here between Bustill and his modern day counterpart Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Cyrus Bustill is not a famous man. It’s unfortunate to see how easily someone of great historic importance can be forgotten to the sands of time. But, had it not been for the courage and brilliance of this man, the groundwork for modern civil equality might never have been laid. For this he deserves an entry into This Day in History. 

Cyrus Bustill’s famous speech on September 18th, 1787, “I Speak to Those in Slavery,” can be found on Google Books, and is reprinted in Philip Foner and Robert Branham’s Lift Every Voice.