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From slave to freeman: African Americans in colonial Philadelphia

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Author: Jeffrey Ray
Date: Oct. 2004
From: Cobblestone(Vol. 25, Issue 7)
Publisher: Cricket Media
Document Type: Article
Length: 856 words

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When William Penn first came to Pennsylvania in 1682, there already were African Americans living on the banks of the Delaware River. They were the descendants of slaves of Dutch, Swedish, and Finnish farmers who had settled in the region around 1638. Then, in 1684, the British brig Isabella sailed into Philadelphia with 150 African men and women on board. These black people were sold as slaves to the city's first Quaker settlers. Consequently, African Americans became an important part of Philadelphia's economy and culture.

In the first decades of Philadelphia's existence, merchants and craftsmen preferred to use indentured servants from Germany, Scotland, and Ireland as their source of labor. But in 1756, the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War) broke out in Europe, interrupting the flow of immigrants to Philadelphia. The conflict caused the importation of slaves to reach its peak. In 1762, five hundred men and women arrived in Philadelphia from Gambia, West Africa.

During this time, southern landowners usually had many slaves to work their plantations. Philadelphia was a typical northern city, however, where most masters owned only one or two slaves. These slaves tended to live in their owners' homes and were able to interact much more with both free white and black people and fellow slaves. In 1767, for instance, more than 1,400 free and enslaved African Americans lived in one twenty-block area.

On Sundays, holidays, and market days, many of Philadelphia's black folks would meet at the Strangers' Burial Ground, which contained the graves of most of the city's African Americans. The courthouse, at the foot of Market Street, also became a place to gather on Sundays and after work. According to contemporary historical accounts, these events, which sometimes got quite large, involved singing and dancing. This resulted in corn, plaints, as early as 1693, about the "tumultuous gatherings" of slaves.

African American men and women were able to marry and have families. From 1745 to 1776, there were twenty-seven marriages between slaves recorded Anglican and Lutheran churches. Of those, twenty-one were between men and women owned by different masters.

It was difficult for slaves to keep and raise their children past a certain age, however. When a black child reached the age of ten or twelve, he or she often was hired out to work for a different family, who more than likely lived outside Philadelphia.

Another threat to African American family life was that it was possible for one spouse to be sold or rented out to work on a farm in the countryside, away from the city. Obviously, these situations created severe hardships for African Americans.

No formal education was available for African Americans in Philadelphia. But in 1750, Anthony Benezet, a Quaker schoolteacher, began tutoring free blacks and slaves in his home at night. In 1758, Bray Associates, a group connected with the Anglican Church, opened a school for flee black children, as well as the children of slaves.

In 1773, Benezet built a schoolhouse for the children of free African Americans on Willing's Alley in Philadelphia. Slave children were accepted if not enough free black children enrolled. Over the next six years, almost 250 black children were educated at Benezet's school.

As early as 1689, Quakers living in Germantown, Pennsylvania, had begun to question the morality of owning slaves. In the 1720s, Benjamin Lay and other Quakers argued that it was wrong to hold other human beings in bondage. In 1758, under the influence of Benezet and John Woolman, leading Quaker abolitionists of their time, Quakers living in the Philadelphia area were urged to stop buying and selling slaves. Finally, in 1776, Philadelphia's Quakers decided to disown any practicing member of their religion who continued to own slaves.

By 1770, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran slave owners also had begun to free their slaves. In addition, slaves were being given their freedom in their masters' wills. Citizens opposed to slavery also contributed by buying a person's freedom. Freed slaves, in turn, worked to pay for their parents', spouses', or children's release.

Virtually no new slaves were brought into Philadelphia in the 1770s. Instead, the city was developing a growing free African American community. Although they experienced prejudice, Philadelphia's former slaves were able to find employment as domestic servants (for women) and in construction or the shipping industry (for men). Some black men, such as Joseph Head and James Forten, worked as apprentices and learned important professional skills.

By 1776, there were almost five hundred free African Americans living in that city. So, on the eve of the American Revolution, there was a firmly established community of free African Americans in Philadelphia.

A brig is a two-masted sailing ship.

Indentured means contracted or bound into the services of another for a specified amount of time.

Tumultuous means noisy and disorderly.

Morality means living in accordance with the standards of good conduct.

Abolitionists were those who supported the end of slavery.

Disown means to refuse to accept as one's own.

Jeffrey Ray is the senior curator at the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. He also is a consulting editor For this issue.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A125955462