James Miller McKim, a graduate of Dickinson College, was one of the great civil rights advocates of the nineteenth century.  He grew up in rural Pennsylvania at a time when the state was gradually abolishing slavery within its own borders.  But in the early 1830s, as a young Presbyterian minister, McKim became a committed abolitionist –an impassioned opponent of Southern slavery– after reading fiery pamphlets by journalist William Lloyd Garrison.  McKim encountered Garrison’s radical views while visiting his barber, a local black leader, who helped tutor him in the antislavery cause.  McKim soon joined the Garrisonian abolitionist movement, becoming close friends with figures such as Quaker feminist Lucretia Mott and with Theodore Weld, the organizer of a controversial band of abolitionist orators who traveled the North speaking out against slavery.  McKim eventually settled in Philadelphia where he came to lead the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and helped to organize Underground Railroad efforts, assisting runaway slaves in their dangerous escapes to freedom.  McKim was at the center of the most famous escape of the era, the secret journey of Henry “Box” Brown from Richmond to Philadelphia in 1849, while Brown was hidden for over 24 hours inside of a shipping crate.

Over the course of the 1850s, McKim, along with noted black abolitionist William Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee aided in several hundred other documented and successful escapes.  McKim was also involved in John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry.  He did not participate directly in Brown’s brief war against slaveholders, but McKim openly praised the abolitionist zealot and traveled with his wife Mary after Brown’s execution to help recover his body for burial.  McKim also seemed to welcome the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  He reasoned that “a virtuous war” was  “better than a corrupt peace” and worked from the very beginning of the conflict to ensure that it was about emancipation of the slaves and promoting equal opportunities for the freed people.  McKim took a personal interest in recruiting black soldiers for the Union army and in coordinating relief efforts for liberated families. In 1862, he traveled to Union-occupied South Carolina, even bringing along his daughter Lucy, who became well-known herself for collecting and transposing slave songs and spirituals for publication.  During the final years of the war, McKim became a leading abolitionist supporter of President Lincoln and lobbied Congress successfully for the creation of a new federal agency for freed people.  Following the Civil War, McKim also helped lead the effort to desegregate Philadelphia street cars and to launch a leading progressive periodical, The Nation, which is still being published today. James Miller McKim died in 1874, after spending decades advocating for the human and civil rights of African Americans.



November 10, 1810: Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania

1828: Graduated Dickinson College and then attended classes at Princeton to become a Presbyterian minister

1830: Returned home to care for siblings after parents’ deaths

1831: Became a Presbyterian minister

1833: Discussed abolitionism with John Peck and attended the first American Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia

1834: Began the Carlisle Anti-Slavery Society after giving an anti-slavery speech in Carlisle, Pennsylvania

1836: Joined the “Band of Seventy” and became a full-time agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society

1838: Attended the first Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society meeting

1840: Moved to Philadelphia where he became the editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman and became the secretary for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society; Married Sarah Allibone Speakman (October 1)

1847: Reorganized Pennsylvania’s Vigilance Committee into the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee; Became an agent of Frederick Douglass’s North Star

1849: Assisted in freeing Henry “Box” Brown via shipping crate

1859: Traveled with Mary Brown to reclaim John Brown’s body

December 20, 1860: South Carolina seceded; McKim openly supported secession

1861: Began supporting a war if it was a war over emancipation; Outbreak of Civil War (April)

1862: Resigned from the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (January); Traveled to Port Royal; Formed and became the secretary of the Philadelphia Port Royal Relief Association (March); Organized an event at National Hall in Philadelphia to discuss the conditions at Port Royal and ask for resources (July 9)

1863: Organized an enlistment rally for African Americans at National Hall in Philadelphia and arranged to have Frederick Douglass speak (July 6); The Philadelphia Port Royal Relief Association grew to become the Pennsylvania Port Royal Relief Association; Became a member of the Freedmen’s Aid Commission

1864: Supported Lincoln in his re-election

1865: Successfully lobbied Congress for the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau; Lincoln’s assassination (April 14); Official end of the Civil War with Andrew Johnson’s declaration (May 9); Began his efforts to desegregate the Philadelphia street cars; Became the first secretary of the American Freedmen’s Union Commission in New York City; Released the first publication of The Nation.

July 1869: Gave the motion to disband the American Freedmen’s Union Commission under the premise that it accomplished all its goals

June 13, 1874: Died in Orange, New Jersey


Descriptions of McKim


McKim is a “‘prudent rash man’” with “‘an earnest zeal’” and “‘great wisdom.’”

-Oliver Johnson [1]

His best qualities are his “‘caution, sound judgement, and mental balance.’”

-William Still [2]


McKim was “quiet, reserved, businesslike, and efficient” because “he applied a fundamentally conservative temperament to the prosecution of a radical cause.”

-Ira V. Brown [3]

McKim’s greatest quality was perhaps his ability to “work harmoniously with all kinds of people.”

-Ira V. Brown [4]

“There were no important abolitionists of the day who were not McKim’s friends.”

-Willie Lee Rose [5]



[1] Ira V. Brown, “Miller McKim and Pennsylvania Abolition,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studes no. 1 (1963), 72.

[2] Ira V. Brown, 72.

[3] Ira V. Brown, “Miller McKim and Pennsylvania Abolition,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studes no. 1 (1963), 71-72.

[4] Ira V. Brown, “Miller McKim and Pennsylvania Abolition,” 72.

[5] Willie Lee Rose, “‘Iconoclasm Has Had Its Day:’ Abolitionists and Freedmen in South Carolina,” The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists, ed. by Duberman Martin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 179.