Celebrating Abolitionist and Activist Anna Elizabeth Dickinson
Civil rights activist, orator, writer, and Friends Select alumna Anna Elizabeth Dickinson is now recognized with a Pennsylvania state historical marker near the southeast corner of Broad and Arch Streets. The commemoration of her work and connection to Philadelphia are a result of the combined efforts of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), Friends Select, and Amy Cohen ’82.
In honor of Women’s History Month last March, Friends Select celebrated the occasion with a ceremony at the Race Street Meetinghouse followed by the unveiling of the marker near the site where Anna frequently resided. In addition to members of the school community, event speakers included Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and Nancy Moses, chair of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Anna was born into a Quaker family and attended Friends Select and Westtown School. An ardent abolitionist who, at 13 years old, had an essay published in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, she became a nationally famous orator who spoke out for the rights of women, workers, and African Americans. In 1864, at 21 years old, Anna became the first woman to address the U.S. Congress, in a speech that received a standing ovation and was attended by President Abraham Lincoln. A testament to her popularity is that Anna was later invited to the White House by President Lincoln.
Amy Cohen ’82, director of education for History Making Productions and contributing writer for Hidden City, initiated the call for the historical marker. In her piece, “The Forgotten Fame of Anna Dickinson,” Amy reported on Anna’s celebrity and political voice—as well as her unfortunate fall from popularity—and wondered why this historical figure with ties to Philadelphia had not yet received recognition from the city.
“I first heard of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson when reading David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Frederick Douglass, which briefly describes a political convention in Philadelphia where both Douglass and Dickinson were speakers,” said Amy, who also spoke at the dedication ceremony. “It was in doing research for the article that I learned Dickinson’s remarkable story. When I found out that a young Philadelphian was the first woman to address Congress, and that she was one of the most famous women in the country in the late 19th century, I thought it was important for others to know about her.” In her article, Amy also invited others to join her in planning an event when her application for a marker was approved by the PHMC.
Friends Select director of city curriculum Margaret Smith felt the connections between Anna and today’s students. “At the root of Anna Dickinson’s work was a call for equality, a Quaker testimony that continues to guide all of us at Friends Select,” said Margaret. “Like many of our students, Anna Dickinson didn’t fit neatly into any one box; she had a number of causes and interests she pursued, and she advocated for her right to pursue them even when social mores suggested she shouldn’t. Dickinson’s outspokenness, her willingness to be contrary on behalf of others and herself, reminds me of many of our students who are willing to speak up and take action to move social justice forward when it is popular and when it is not.”
Upper school students in the Gender Equity club recited selections from Dickinson’s speeches at the commemoration ceremony. “The event says a lot about our school’s dedication to social justice work and specifically uplifting silenced voices. For us to find and uplift a woman so close to our school, whose story has been unheard for so long, has been really inspiring to see,” said Sofia Solari-Parravicini ’23. “I think that Anna Dickinson was most definitely a trailblazer for her time whose story and struggle really showcase what it means to make sacrifices for good causes.”
“As a Friends Select ‘lifer,’ my career and life choices have been significantly shaped by my experiences at the school,” Amy added. “Friends Select is where I first developed my love of history and passion for social justice, so it feels like a full circle moment to have today’s students participate in the marker dedication ceremony.”