At the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia was a city of hope for African Americans. Pennsylvania had passed the first gradual abolition act, and Philadelphia was home by 1790 to some 2,000 free blacks. Some had bought their freedom after working during the Revolutionary War, some had been freed because by slaveholders moved by revolutionary ideals. All had hopes for the future in the new country built on the ideals of independence, but doubts as to whether the declarations of liberty and equality would apply to them.There's hope in the sense of new beginnings and new nation and hope in the sense of the possibility for emancipation for blacks which is...becoming a reality for some. And there's a sense of optimism that something new is taking place, something that will respect the rights of men...and that there will be opportunity for self-determination,...for a gradual development of freedom both on the national level and on the level of the individual.
- Albert J. Raboteau, historian
Black migration into the city was heavy from the end of the Revolution until about 1815. People came from rural areas in a hundred-mile radius around Philadelphia, as well as from the South, attracted by job prospects and the promise of living among other free black people. Refugees from the revolution in St. Domingue (later Haiti) and fugitive slaves added to the influx of blacks in the city. Philadelphia was over 90 percent white, but its black community helped buffer the hostility of whites and provided an alternative to rural isolation. Many blacks were able to find work as mariners, day laborers and domestic servants. Many also worked as entrepreneurs, often serving a predominantly black clientele. Both men and women often worked to support their families. While some destitute blacks lived near the river, a few prospered and were able to invest in income-producing property. By 1796, black communities were growing along the northern and southern borders of the city. By 1830, all of the city's 14,500 black people were free, while the white population had grown to 150,000.
Map of Philadelphia
Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market
Back of State House, Philadelphia
The Accident in Lombard Street
French West Indian refugees in Philadelphia
After 1799, a small but growing number of black professionals included doctors, teachers, clergymen, hairdressers, shoemakers, bakers, tailors, sailmakers, teamsters, food caterers, carpenters, musicians, and many other professions. In 1811, the city directory listed 81 black men who owned their own businesses; by 1816, the number was 180. Most women worked as domestic laborers, but some were teachers, or owned their own businesses. Together these people created a black middle class.Philadelphia had at that point the largest, most aggressive, and wealthiest free black population in the western world. Philadelphians knew it. Americans 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 gentlemen and ladies...
- Emma Lapsansky, historian
The majority of black Philadelphians, however, struggled with poverty, as did most Irish, German and English immigrants. When families applied for aid at the local almshouses they were often required to indenture their children. This happened to both black and white families. However, most black children were indentured to the age of 28, while most white boys were indentured until they were 21, and most white girls until they were 18. Some adults indentured themselves as well.
During the Great Awakening of the 1750s, Philadelpha Quaker Anthony Benezet and his colleague John Woolman challenged slaveholding among their peers and argued that enslaved African Americans should be educated in preparation for eventual freedom. The Quaker community never encouraged blacks to fully participate alongside whites, but in 1776, Philadelphia's Yearly Meeting issued an order barring members who would not free their slaves. Until his death in 1784, Anthony Benezet remained a staunch anti-slavery advocate, writing numerous pamphlets and running a night school for the black community for nearly 20 years. He believed that black children could learn as readily as their white counterparts.
Benezet Instructing Colored Children
We, the free Africans and their descendants, of the City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania, or elsewhere, do unanimously agree, for the benefit of each other, to advance one shilling in silver Pennsylvania currency a month; and after one year's subscription from the date hereof, then to hand forth to the needy of this Society...
- The Free African Society
One of Benezet's students was Absalom Jones, an emerging leader in Philadelphia's black community. A newly freed black man, Jones was relatively prosperous, working as a clerk in his former master's store and purchasing his own home and a second rental property. In 1787, Jones joined forces with Richard Allen and others to create the Free African Society (FAS), the first black mutual aid association in Philadelphia.
Richard Allen was an enterprising businessman and a leading black Methodist preacher in the city. At 5 a.m. each morning he conducted separate services for African Americans at St. George's Methodist Church, and throughout the week he preached in outdoor locations.
The Free African Society's original mission was to care for widows and the poor, but the organization began to encompass religious functions as well. Because of discrimination, African Americans could scarcely find plots to bury their dead. The FAS convinced the city fathers to turn over Potter's Field burial ground for their use, and also started issuing marriage licenses for black couples and keeping birth records.
Preamble of the Free African Society
Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician in Philadelphia, worked with Anthony Benezet to write a pamphlet which attacked the institution of slavery. Rush became an even more ardent abolitionist in 1787 inspired by the late Benezet's spirit. That year he joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS). The PAS worked to amend the gradual abolition act of 1780, to prohibit transporting slave children and pregnant women out of Pennsylvania and impose heavier fines for kidnapping free blacks into slavery. Benjamin Franklin became president of the PAS in 1789, the year an assistance plan was announced to create schools and employment opportunities for free black people. Although pro-abolition, many PAS members held onto beliefs of black inferiority.
Founding of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society
Address to the Public
A real siege mentality took over. So that in a household, if one person caught it, that person was often just put outdoors. You had actual situations where children were put out of doors, dropped in the street because people were afraid the child would infect everybody else.
- John Edgar Wideman, historian
The Yellow Fever epidemic that hit Philadelphia in the summer of 1793 was the largest epidemic in the country's history, resulting in more than 4,000 deaths. As the death toll climbed, those with means escaped the city, and those left behind were abandoned to their fate. Benjamin Rush, who stayed to fight the disease, believed (mistakenly) that blacks were immune. He enlisted the aid of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in recruiting blacks to help the sick and dying. Blacks were now welcomed into the homes of whites, where they performed medical duties and carted away and disposed of the dead.
Blacks had hoped to gain recognition and acceptance for their tireless work. Instead, they were further reviled after the cooler weather in November brought relief from the mosquito-transmitted disease. Publisher Mathew Carey's pamphlet, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, so popular that it went through four editions, accused blacks of profiting from the disaster. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones published a response to the pamphlet, in which the courage and dedication of blacks during the plague was extolled and they showed that proportionally as many blacks as whites had died due to the fever.
The Yellow Fever epidemic
Extracts from journal of Elizabeth Drinker
A Short Account of the Malignant Fever
A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People...
Next: Freedom and Resistance
Part 3 Narrative:
Map: The Growing Nation
Freedom and Resistance
The Black Church
Conspiracy and Rebellions
Growth and Entrenchment of Slavery
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