Whipper, William

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Whipper, William

c. February 22, 1804
March 9, 1876

The moral reformer and businessman William Whipper was born in Little Britain Township, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Although the inscription on Whipper's tombstone gives 1804 as his date of birth, census data list his year of birth as 1806. Little is known about Whipper's early life, but by 1830 he was living in Philadelphia and working as a steam scourer, cleaning clothing with a steam process.

By the early 1830s, Whipper, who was operating a "free labor and temperance grocery" in Philadelphia, had become active in the intellectual life of the city's black community. In 1828 he delivered an "Address Before the Colored Reading Society of Philadelphia," and in 1833 he was selected to deliver a public eulogy on the British abolitionist William Wilberforce. That same year, he was among the nine founders of the Philadelphia Library of Colored Persons.

Whipper attended every annual National Negro Convention from 1830 to 1835 and was chosen to help draft the movement's declaration of sentiments. In 1834, Whipper, who had earned a reputation among Philadelphia's black elite for his support of moral reform, delivered an address to the Colored Temperance Society of Philadelphia that emphasized the importance of virtue in promoting racial uplift.

At the 1835 national convention, Whipper spearheaded the movement to form the American Moral Reform Society (AMRS), an interracial organization with a broad reform agenda that did not focus exclusively on slavery. Whipper was appointed to the committee to draft the society's constitution, was elected as secretary, and delivered the address "To the American People" at the society's first annual meeting in Philadelphia in 1837. Whipper also helped establish and served as editor of the society's journal, the National Reformer (18381839).

By 1835 Whipper had moved to Columbia, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River, where he became active in the Underground Railroad, providing economic aid to fugitive slaves who passed through the city. While in Columbia, Whipper joined with Stephen Smith, a wealthy African-American lumber merchant, to establish Smith and Whipper, a lucrative lumber business with operations in Philadelphia and Columbia.

The AMRS lost most of its support in the late 1830s, and with its collapse in 1841 Whipper's public career began to fade. Whipper focused his attention on his lumber company, although he continued to participate in the activities of the northern black leadership. In 1848, he attended the state convention in Philadelphia, reversing his previous denunciation of "complexional" gatherings, and participated in the national conventions of 1853 (Rochester, New York) and 1855 (Philadelphia).

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Whipper became interested in emigration to Canada West (now Ontario), shifting his longtime opposition to emigrationist schemes. In 1853 Whipper traveled to Canada and decided to purchase property in the town of Dresden. He was on the verge of moving his family there in 1861 when the outbreak of the Civil War caused him to abandon his plans.

Whipper moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1868, but he retained his residence in Philadelphia. In 1870 he was appointed a cashier in the Philadelphia branch of the Freedmen's Savings Bank and two years later he relocated to that city. When the bank collapsed in 1873, Whipper apparently lost a large portion of his substantial personal savings. He died at his home in Philadelphia.

See also American Moral Reform Society; Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship; Free Blacks, 16191860; Freedman's Bank; Underground Railroad


McCormick, Richard P. "William Whipper: Moral Reformer." Pennsylvania History 43 (January 1976): 2246.

Still, William. The Underground Railroad. Philadelphia: People's Publishing, 1879.

louise p. maxwell (1996)