James Needham: Paving The Way for Abolitionists

23 Oct

James Needham was an African American officer hailing from Philadelphia, active in many political causes and deeply committed to the abolitionist movement. Like many black men at the time, he worked intensively to gain leadership positions in reform organizations, finding ways to spread hope, knowledge, and protection to slaves.

In August 1835, he was one of the nine black abolitionists to create the Philadelphia Vigilance Association. The committee’s main goal was to “fund aid to colored persons in distress.” They helped runaway slaves find shelter, clothing, medicine, and money. Needham and his fellow members educated the slaves on their legal rights and protections, later giving them temporary jobs before sending them off to the safe haven of Canada. The association elected James Needham as the Treasurer, along with James McCrummell and Jacob C. White as President and Secretary, respectively.

On November 5th, 1841, The Liberator published an article reporting on the National Convention, in which a committee of twenty-four men met in concern for the “colored people of the United States.” Needham, the chairman of the committee, discussed several aspects of the lives of African Americans, hoping to fix depravations and issues that blacks were facing at the time. The article went on to list the views of the committee, concluding with the general consensus that blacks ought to freely express their voice, and be given the same rights and privileges as whites. In the end, James Needham was the first to sign, implying that he had a massive input in the writing.

Needham was also an active participant in the church sector – giving speeches in various Sunday schools. On August 1, 1842, the “Colored Sunday Schools” of the city and county of Philadelphia had exercises opened with prayer by Rev. Joe Cox. The singing was conducted by Robert C. Jones, and the address on the event was by Bishop D.A. Payne. The address to parents and teachers was by S.D. Hastings, and finally, the address to children was by James Needham.

Around 1870, when the 15th amendment was finally being ratified, a San Francisco-based newspaper called The Elevator reported that people across the country were preparing for a celebration. African Americans were rejoicing in the fact that the government had secured to them (in the constitution) something that they deserved from the very beginning. James Needham was interviewed from Philadelphia, saying, “Our folks here are making preparations to celebrate the 15th Amendment, when the Proclamation is issued. It will be a great jubilee, and I hope it will be duly observed throughout the country. We anticipate having a fine time here.”

James Needham’s significance in the Colored Convention was the sheer amount of experience and expertise he carried. Representing so many groups and gaining solid positions in all sorts of abolitionist groups gave him an edge, especially in a group masterminded by men with such similar experiences. Needham was among the myriad of courageous men who were willing to stand up for justice for African Americans. He was committed to the end of slavery – and did just about anything he could to make sure it came as soon as possible.

Not just Needham, but all of the blacks who came together in the Colored Convention, give us great insight on how to go about solving our problems and circumstances today (unemployment, abortion, taxes). Thanks to their efforts, we have now achieved relative equality in all races and ethnicities. Racism has vastly improved – and in the 21st century, our country has become smart enough to realize that there are far more imperative issues left to fix, much of which can be solved by starting off with a dream, a vision, and group of highly effective, determined individuals.

Sources/Writings of Needham:






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