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Osler Family monument.The Witman Mausoleum. Harrisburg Cemetery
African American
History Perspectives

Tour stop 3: Mordecai McKinney
"A Friend of the Oppressed and Downtrodden"


Headstone of Judge Mordecai McKinney, with an epitaph that refers to his devotion to those most in need of legal help.Mordecai McKinney (1796-1867)


f all the activities associated with the Underground Railroad, legal action is most often overlooked or forgotten.  Yet despite the efforts of those involved with the more frequently cited activities of hiding, forwarding and guiding fugitive slaves from one place to the next, slave catchers did often arrest fugitives and take them before local judges or federal commissioners to be remanded south.  At that point, the slave's only hope of remaining free lay with one of a few rare lawyers who allied themselves with the underground movement.  Harrisburg judge and lawyer Mordecai McKinney became one of those men after the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. 

McKinney was born either near Carlisle or in Middletown--accounts vary--and studied at Dickinson College, later studying law under Judge Duncan of Carlisle.  He was admitted to the Dauphin County bar in 1817 and quickly began to distinguish himself in Pennsylvania's legal community.  In 1827 Governor Shulze appointed him an associate judge of Dauphin County.  During his career as a jurist, McKinney published several volumes of legal references, including McKinney's Digest, Our Government and Pennsylvania Tax Laws.

Mordecai's parents were Mordecai and Mary "Polly" (Chambers), and his grandfather was also named Mordecai McKinney.  The father, Mordecai McKinney of Middletown was a merchant, and owned a store in that town.  At some point, the elder McKinney owned one or more slaves, as he registered the child of a slave, according to law, a boy named Dick.  Mordecai McKinney of Harrisburg, the lawyer and judge, would have therefore grown up with slavery.  His mother, Mary, was the daughter of Colonel William Chambers of Middleton Township, Cumberland County, who registered at least seven slaves in his lifetime.

While a family history of slaveholding led some people to accept the practice, Mordecai McKinney rejected slaveholding, and subsequently formed a distinctly different relationship with local African Americans.  This decision may have been influenced by his marriage with Rachel Graydon, daughter of William Graydon of Harrisburg.  Although the family patriarchs, Alexander and William Graydon, did own at least one slave each, most of the Graydon children did not condone slaveholding and some members of the family became ardent abolitionists in Central Pennsylvania, and in Indiana upon moving there.  McKinney became actively involved with anti-slavery politics, supporting the Liberty party's candidate, F. Julius Lemoyne, for Governor  in 1847 and serving on the central committee at the party convention held in Harrisburg in July, offering a resolution that was adopted, reading in part:

Resolved, That, in the present apparent tendencies relative to the next Presidential election, we are called, by the principles of humanity and a regard to the highest interests of Liberty, to immediate, determined, and active opposition to all measures calculated to sustain or extend the predominance of the slave power in our Government. We must, under all circumstances, resist the election of a slaveholder, or defender of slavery, as President of the United States.

When the Liberty party became obsolete, McKinney supported Free-soil Democrats, serving as a party organizer in Dauphin County in 1853.

It is significant that Jane Morris, an escaped slave from Maryland, lived with the Alexander Graydon family (nephew to the slaveholder of the same name and son of lawyer William Graydon), upon her arrival in Harrisburg, and later lived with the Mordecai McKinney family.  Jane soon met George Chester, another escaped slave already living in Harrisburg, and in 1826 they married.  The Chester family became very active in abolitionist and Underground Railroad activities in Harrisburg.  We can only speculate as to which family influenced the other, or whether the Graydons, Chesters and McKinneys where all of similar views and supported one another in their beliefs.

The first high-profile case in which Mordecai McKinney appeared in court in defense of fugitive slaves was also Harrisburg's most notorious slave trial.  In August 1850, three Black men were brought before Judge John J. Pearson on charges, brought by two Virginia planters, of horse theft, but Pearson believed the charges were just a "pretext"  for getting local help in capturing the three men.  McKinney and another Harrisburg attorney, Charles C. Rawn, represented the Blacks, and called many witnesses including numerous members of Harrisburg's African American community, to testify that the men were not fugitives from slavery.  Judge Pearson, seeing no evidence of horse theft, released the three men, but the slave catchers pounced upon them in the vestibule of the county courthouse.  One man escaped due to the presence of a large, boisterous crowd of local Blacks protesting the proceedings, and in particular due to the efforts of Joseph Popel, a local Black man, who rushed the vestibule and pried open the heavy iron gate.  Pearson charged the planters with provoking a riot, and they in turn charged the accused fugitives of assault, and another court date was set for November. 

By the time this second court date had come up, the federal government had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which took away most of the rights in court previously held by Blacks accused of being runaway slaves.  In addition, Harrisburg's federally appointed commissioner to hear fugitive slave cases, Richard McAllister, was distinctly pro-slavery in his views, and made little pretense of fairness in his hearings.  Local Blacks, in despair over the new law, again turned to Mordecai McKinney and Charles Rawn to represent alleged fugitive slaves in Harrisburg.

Because the new law did not require notice of a hearing, accused Blacks were usually taken immediately before Commissioner McAllister, leaving little or no time for McKinney and Rawn to prepare a defense.  In one instance the attorneys were roused from their sleep at 6:45 a.m. as an entire family was hustled through town to McAllister's office.  Unfortunately, the entire family, with the exception of an infant who had been born in Pennsylvania, was remanded south by McAllister.

The new United States Commissioner did not hide his dislike for McKinney, usually overruling his objections to irregularities in the proceedings, and sometime preventing testimony which could be damaging to his anticipated ruling.  He also regularly insulted McKinney during the proceedings.  Despite the best efforts of both McKinney and fellow attorney Rawn, most Blacks brought before McAllister were returned to slavery.  The new law simply gave them little legal room for maneuver, and placed most of the decision in the U.S. commissioner's hands.

Mordecai McKinney and Charles Rawn would continue to represent Blacks accused of being fugitive slaves in Harrisburg as long as McAllister remained a commissioner, which he did through the spring of 1853.  That they were actively working for the Underground Railroad would probably have been disputed by them at the time.  It was, after all, an illegal operation.  They probably saw themselves simply as representing people who were in desperate need of legal counsel in the face of an iniquitous law.  Yet the money to pay their fees came from known abolitionists and persons who actively supported and worked for the Underground Railroad.  No doubt those paying McKinney saw his service as a vital last resort when more covert operations had failed.

McKinney worked closely with Harrisburg's African American community in the 1850's and 1860's, helping to establish the Second Presbyterian Church, an African American church that worshipped in a building owned by the Haldeman family, located on Walnut Street on the corner with River Alley.  His influence was seen as overbearing by some, however, and he was accused of taking a patriarchal tone in his dealings with Blacks.  Orre Leon C. Hughes wrote a lengthy letter to the Christian Recorder complaining of McKinney's "attitude to the colored people of the city of Harrisburg."  McKinney had openly opposed the use of the Masonic Hall, located in Tanner's Alley, for 'fairs, festivals, and all such entertainments" as nuisances that were "demoralizing to the colored people."  Hughes replied that these functions were a necessary source of revenue for Harrisburg Blacks, and that similar events held by white congregations and groups were not criticized as demoralizing.  He wrote "Judge McKinney differs with us concerning what we should say or do.  And yet he holds, that he is benefiting the colored people...(He has) assumed the undelegated right to think and act for us."

Despite proving themselves on the battlefield, establishing social, economic and religious institutions, owning property and running successful businesses, African Americans would be dogged by the notion that Blacks needed guidance from well-established whites.  Even a person such as Mordecai McKinney, who worked for and strongly believed in racial equality, fell victim to this more subtle form of racism that would persist well into the twentieth century, and still survives in many forms today. 


Charles Coatesworth Rawn
"this Nation will yet weep"


For an older biography of Mordecai McKinney, 
Dauphin County Pennsylvania Transcription Project (2000-2002). Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Retrieved July 23, 2002 from the World Wide Web:

McKinney's work for in defense of Blacks accused of being fugitive slaves is well documented in
Gerald G. Eggert, "The Impact of the Fugitive Slave Law on Harrisburg:  A Case Study," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 109 (October 1985, 537-569).

McKinney's work with the Liberty party and Free-soil Democrats is from (Washington DC) The National Era, July 1, 1847 and June 2, 1853.  The letter by O.L.C. Hughes is published in (Philadelphia) The Christian Recorder, December 3, 10, 1864. These newspapers are digitalized online at Accessible Archives.

Slaveholding documentation for the Graydon and McKinney families is on this web site at Dauphin County Slaveholders K-N, and Dauphin County Slaveholders in 1790.

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This page was updated October 16, 2005.