James Poovey (c.1769–unknown) was an 18th-century Philadelphian enslaved from birth who achieved manumission through non-violent disobedience. In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature ratified An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery which effectively abolished the importation of future slaves to Pennsylvania and granted children born into slavery after its enactment freedom at the age of twenty-eight years. Poovey, born roughly eleven years prior to the institution of this law, was precluded from claiming freedom under the act.
By the age of about thirty-three years, Poovey had become literate and was actively reading the New Testament of the Holy Bible. Based upon his interpretation of verses such as Matthew 7:12, Poovey arrived at the conclusion that allowing one man to enslave another was anathema to the "do unto others" charge of the bible. In an attempt to gain freedom, Poovey made propositions for manumission to his owner Mr. Coates, a blacksmith, in the Southwark District of Philadelphia. Initially, Poovey offered Coates seven years faithful service, only to be declined. He then offered to purchase his freedom from Coates by earning wages at sea; Coates rejected this also. After these failed negotiations, Poovey's convictions of freedom grew deeper and he promised to make no further overtures to Coates saying, "You will get nothing by trying to keep me in slavery, for I am determined to be free. I shall never make you another offer."
Soon after this stern declaration, Poovey chose to simply walk away from his oppressor in Southwark. Coates responded immediately by applying for an arrest warrant. Within a few days, Poovey was captured and sentenced to prison for thirty days, a common punishment for runaway slaves. While in prison, Coates visited Poovey to ask him to recant and return to bondage. Poovey flatly refused resulting in an additional thirty days of incarceration. Coates appeared yet again to speak with Poovey, this time offering him a new suit and Methodist hat for his voluntary return. Poovey proudly declined the offer saying, "keep them for your self [..] I will never serve you nor any man as a slave again." After this confrontation, Coates weighed his options about Poovey concluding that he could neither keep him nor sell him due to Pennsylvania's prohibitive slave trafficking laws. After just over two months of suffering in jail, Poovey walked away a free man as Coates in effect defaulted by choosing to pursue him no further. James Poovey had achieved freedom through non-violent disobedience.