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Modern Voices
Emma Lapsansky on Philadelphia
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Q: Describe the city of Philadelphia during the Federalist period.
Emma Lapsansky

A: Philadelphia in the 1790's was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Information would come in through the seaport, and people would then go into the taverns, where they would read newspapers and/or spread around the information they'd gotten from other ports. It's how African Americans who wanted to run away, knew where it was they could go. African Americans would get on ships and go wherever the ship was going. It was the closest free city to the slave South.

The Philadelphia of the period between 1790 and 1830 is what historians have been fond of calling a walking city. It's a city without public transportation, and therefore everybody who lives in it has to be within walking distance of where they work, or where they do whatever they're doing. As a consequence, the arrangement of the city was generally what's called vertical segregation, as much by class as by race. Owners live on the main streets. Workers live in the narrow streets and alleys behind. The working population tends to be German, Irish, African American. And they live roughly on the same blocks, which is not the same thing as an integrated neighborhood, but they would have come in contact with each other. They would not have necessarily spent their leisure time in each other's company. They would have been mostly polite to each other on the streets. but when it came time to celebrate, when it came time to go to church, to marry, etc., people went off to their own ethnic foxholes.

Except for public gatherings. In the early 19th century, it's clear that public gatherings were what one might call democratic. And it's clear that there's a great deal of action in the public space, that takes place with lots of different kinds of people, sharing the public space for particular holidays.

Between 1820 and 1830, the black population of Philadelphia grew by a third, from about 10,000 to about 15,000. And it's in that period that you begin to get tension around race in the city. Philadelphia had at that point, the largest, most aggressive, and wealthiest free black population in the western world. Philadelphians knew it. Americans knew it. And by 1830's British people knew it. Everybody saw Philadelphia as the prototype of what a free African American would look like, and what a free African American would do. That is to say, they'd buy property; they'd take over the public space; they would see themselves, as one cartoonist called them, as gentlemen and ladies, instead of remaining in their proper social place.

Emma Lapsansky
Professor of History
Haverford College

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