African Americans in Pennsylvania: Above Ground and Underground

African Americans in Pennsylvania: Above Ground and Underground

by Charles L. Blockson

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Charles L. Blockson, one of the leading authorities on African American history, has compiled one of the nation's largest private collections of black history artifacts, photographs, maps, and books, a culmination of forty years of research. This guide, drawn from his vast collection and research, explores sites significant to the African American experience in… See more details below


Charles L. Blockson, one of the leading authorities on African American history, has compiled one of the nation's largest private collections of black history artifacts, photographs, maps, and books, a culmination of forty years of research. This guide, drawn from his vast collection and research, explores sites significant to the African American experience in Pennsylvania and includes maps with highlighted events from each part of the state. Charles Blockson founded the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia and is curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. He has written on the Underground Railroad for National Geographic.

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Chapter One


    Nestled between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, Philadelphia County began as a gateway to settlements throughout the state. Many settled in the port area. General information describes Philadelphia as a leading industrial center and tourist attraction. From its distant past, until the present, African-Americans left a prominent and poignant imprint on Philadelphia.

    There is evidence that African-Americans were here as early as 1639. Many prominent Philadelphia merchants and religious and political figures were involved in the trade of African men, women, and children, despite the existence and legal acceptance of the "peculiar institution" of slavery in the "City of Brotherly Love."

    Philadelphia once contained the largest free African-American community in the United States. These individuals created institutions for the purpose of collectively challenging slavery and racism and championing the cause of universal application of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They proceeded to establish churches, schools literary societies, fraternal organizations, and businesses.

Philadelphia — City Hall

    The massive structure occupying four-and-one-half acres is one of the largest municipal buildings in the United States. John J. McArthur, Jr.,designed the building. At the tower, rising more than 500 feet above the street, is a 26-ton statue of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Penn believed in a "Just God" and an "Inner Light" of guidance and morality. He repudiated war and named his government a "Holy Experiment," proclaiming it a non-violent brotherhood.

    Yet, Penn was a slaveholder. In 1700 Penn, eager to improve the moral conditions of his slaves and other enslaved Africans in his colony, sent to the Assembly a bill for the regulation of their marriage. However, the bill was defeated. When Penn returned to England in 1701, he liberated his slaves stating, "I give to ... my blacks, their freedom as under my hand already."

This will, which was left with James Logan, Penn's secretary, was not carried out. Penn's last will contains no mention of his slaves. Logan and other administrators stated that they could not follow Penn's instructions because they were a "private matter."

    Penn's original 1701 City Charter hangs in the Law Library Ceremonial Reception Room in City Hall.

Location: Broad and Market Streets

Philadelphia — First Protest Against Slavery — 1688

    Led by Francis Daniel Pastorius and a small group of other German refugees and Quakers, the first protest against slavery in America occurred on April 18, 1688, in the former Thones Kunders house in Germantown. This group of men who had no previous acquaintance with the horrible institution of slavery was amazed to find it existing in William Penn's colony.

    Though Pastorius was not a Quaker, he taught in a Quaker school in Germantown, and recent information indicates that he had become a Quaker by the time he signed the Germantown Protest in 1688. As one of the few intellectuals in the province, he helped to shape the cultural life of early Philadelphia. Pastorius was also an author and owned a library of more than 250 books written in several languages.

    Pastorius and three other men met at the Friends meetinghouse in Germantown on April 18, 1688, and placed their signatures on this historic abolitionist document that stated the reasons why they were against slavery and the "traffic in men's bodies." Pastorius sent the protest document to Abington Meeting, which turned it down. It then was sent to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, where it was dropped as "radical and untimely."

    This "Germantown Protes" was but the first of a number of voices raised in Pennsylvania. It was followed by the writings of George Keith, John Woolman, Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet, Ralph Sandiford, Thomas Paine, and others. Following the anti-slavery example expressed in the wording of the Germantown Protest, proclamations against slavery were issued in several other colonies.

Location: Pennsylvania State Historical Marker at 5109 Germantown Avenue

Philadelphia — Gloria Del (Old Swedes') Church

    Certified by the Philadelphia Historical Commission as the oldest original structure on its original site in Philadelphia, Gloria Dei (or Old Swedes' Church as it is commonly called) was first used for services in 1700. Its steep gable roof, square belfry, and small spire contribute to its Swedish character.

    There were enslaved Africans in the region around the Delaware River before Pennsylvania was founded. They had arrived with the Dutch, Swedes, and the Finns. In April 1639, a Swedish ship, the Vogel Grip, returned from the Caribbean with a slave named Anthony and docked in Delaware, then known as New Sweden. Anthony served as a slave under the Governor of New Sweden, John Printz, who moved his government from Fort Christina to Tinicum Island, the present site of the Philadelphia Airport.

    Anthony holds the distinction of possibly being the first person of African descent in present day Pennsylvania. Immediately after William Penn arrived in his colony, there are records of slaves in Philadelphia and Chester counties between 1684 and 1687.

    Penn noticed that in his charter to The Free Society of Traders, one Swedish settler in South Philadelphia listed his Negro servant in a 1683 census.

Location: Delaware Avenue and Swan Street

Philadelphia — London Coffee House

    The building was built in 1702 by Charles Reed, who obtained the land from William Penn's daughter, Letitia. In 1754, Major William Bradford, who then was publisher of the Pennsylvania Journal, successfully established a coffeehouse after the London style.

    In the rear portion of the building, the Pennsylvania Journal was printed and sold. The front served as a meeting place for merchants, ship captains, judges, lawyers, city officials, and British Crown officers. When the coffeehouse was rented in 1780 to Gilford Dally, the written terms with John Pemberton, a Quaker, and its proprietor included a requirement that Dally "would exert his endeavors as a Christian to preserve decency and order in said house and to discourage the profanation of the sacred name of God, Almighty by cursing and swearing."

    However, it was common practice of the day to sell enslaved Africans who recently arrived from slave ships a short distance from the London Coffeehouse. Slaves were cruddy examined and displayed upon a platform in front of the establishment. The building is now open to the public.

Location: Pennsylvania State Historical Marker at 2 South Front Streets

Philadelphia — Fort Mifflin

    Designed in 1771 by Captain John Montressor, a British engineer, it was unfinished at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. "Mud Fort," its original name, has been called "one of the remaining examples of the oldest harbor defense fortification system in the United States."

    When the British occupied Philadelphia, the fort had a garrison of 300 men and 20 cannons. The British abandoned "Mud Fort" when they evacuated Philadelphia. In 1795, the fort was renamed in honor of Thomas Mifflin, George Washington's aide de camp and Pennsylvania's first governor.

    In 1800, a cargo of slaves used the fort as a hideaway until they received assistance from Philadelphia abolitionists and were sent to safety in other areas. During the War of 1812, when a British fleet established a blockade and threatened Philadelphia, a group of volunteers manned the fort.

    African-American community leaders Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and James Forten volunteered to defend the defenseless city. In August 1814, the British were marching from Washington D.C. towards Philadelphia. Once again, a group of African-Americans assembled at the junction of Gray's Ferry on the Schuylkill River dressed in colorful uniforms. Although the threatened invasion of Philadelphia did not occur, when the volunteers returned to the city, they were hailed as heroes.

Location: West bank of the Delaware River below the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers

Philadelphia — Mikveh Israel Cemetery

    Mikveh Israel Cemetery is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. It is on land donated in 1740 by Nathan Levy. Buried here are Haym Solomon, the celebrated financier of the American Revolutionary War, and Rebecca Gratz, the inspiration for a character in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, and her brother Simon, co-founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

    Also buried in this cemetery is a slave woman named Lucy Marks. The prominent Marks family owned Lucy Marks. Lucy took her owner's surname, as was the common practice during the period of slavery. According to Jewish historian Maxwell Whiteman, Lucy observed the traditions of Judaism and was a member of Congregation Mikveh Israel in the 1790s.

    Upon her death in 1823, the family applied for the customary burial in the synagogue's cemetery. Some members of the congregation protested the burial of a servant in their cemetery. After a short delay and intense support from other members, Lucy was buried in an unmarked grave.

    Rebecca Gratz, daughter of prominent merchant Michael Gratz, in attempting to have her non-Jewish mother buried in the same cemetery, used the fact of Lucy Marks' grave to illustrate that the cemetery had already received non-Jews.

Location: Spruce Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets

Philadelphia — General Lafayette Statue

The name Lafayette is familiar to most Americans; there are numerous buildings, streets, towns, cities, and educational institutions that bear his name. Along East River Drive (now Kelly Drive), near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, stand the statues of six foreign Revolutionary War heroes who fought for American Independence: Major General Friedrich von Steuben, Naval Commander John Paul Jones, General Casimir Pulaski, General Richard Montgomery, General Nathaniel Greene, and General Marquis de Lafayette.

    Lafayette (1757-1834) spent his long life in the interest of liberty. He fought in both the American and French Revolutions. His beliefs cost him his fortune and social position, but his actions won him the respect of Americans.

    At a young age, Lafayette became a major general in George Washington's army. The British nicknamed him, "The Boy." During this period of the war years, he included among his friends several African-Americans. Perhaps the most celebrated of these was his favorite spy, James Armistead, a Virginia slave and soldier who served under Lafayette and who was with Lafayette when British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

    Hannah Till, an African-American woman cook for Washington and Lafayette during the war, lived at 182 South Fourth Street. When Lafayette returned to America in 1824, he presented her with a gift. She died in 1825. Lafayette vigorously opposed slavery and was a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. It is said that one reason George Washington freed his slaves was because of Lafayette's urging.

Location: East River Drive (Kelly Drive) near the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Philadelphia — Anthony Benezet and the Free African School

    Even before he became a Quaker, Anthony Benezet condemned slavery. He became colonial America's most prolific anti-slavery pamphleteer. In his first published work, he dismissed the charge that blacks were an inferior being.

    "I might show from innumerable examples, how [slavery] introduces idleness, discourages marriage, corrupts the youth and ruins and debauches morals," Benezet wrote. He was a great believer in the education of African-Americans. The Willing's Alley Free African School was established by Anthony Benezet for African-American children.

    The schoolhouse was a one-story, brick building approximately 32 feet by 18 feet in which Benezet also gave instruction to African-American adults in the evenings. In his will, he provided that after his wife's death, his estate should be used to hire religious minded persons to teach a number of Negro; Mulatto, and Indian children.

    Richard Allen and Absalom Jones and a number of early African-American leaders of Philadelphia received their education as a result of this bequest. A small street in the Germantown section of the city honors Benezet's name.

Location: Between Chestnut and Walnut, Third and Fourth Streets

Philadelphia — Arch Street Meetinghouse and Olaudah Equiano

    Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) was captured as a slave from Nigeria in West Africa as a child and served under several masters in the Caribbean and America. He was owned for a short period by a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker merchant and slave dealer named Robert King, who belonged to Arch Street Meeting.

    Because of Equiano's intelligence, King trained him to be a clerk. As he toiled to enrich his owner, he observed the misery of other slaves held in bondage. After gaining his freedom, he settled in London, England, where he wrote his classic book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa in 1789. In his narrative he said he had few illusions about the good life for a black freeman in America. His autobiography helped the British government abolish slavery in Great Britain. Even in Philadelphia, his narrative became a best seller. It has been ranked with the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass, who also vividly captured the historical tide.

Location: 320 Arch Street

Philadelphia — Head House Square

    Originally known as the Old Market House, the Head House, beautifully restored, is the site of one of the oldest public market houses in the nation. An open-air market since 1745, Head House Square today provides an excellent look at the festive atmosphere where vendors of Old Philadelphia hawked and sold their wares.

    African-American street and market vendors have a long and interesting tradition at Head House Square. Here visitors purchased sea bass from the fish man, hominy from the hominy man, pies from the pie man, hot corn and pepper-pot soup from the pepper-pot woman, who called out, "Pepper-pot, all hot, all hot! Makee back strong! Makee live long! Come buy my Pepper pot!"

    Oystermen could also be seen offering their fare to hungry visitors in the square. Beautiful, exotic-looking, coffee and cream-complexion women of French and African descent, newly arrived from the Caribbean, dressed in richly French and West Indian fashion with colorful turbans upon their heads, escorted by wealthy French gentlemen, could be seen strolling through the square.

Location: Second and Pine Streets

Philadelphia — The Liberty Bell

    The Liberty Bell, a historic symbol so reverently preserved as the noblest utterance of human rights and as the charter of freedom, was cast in London in 1751. The 2,080-pound bell arrived in Philadelphia the following year.

    According to tradition, the bell got its familiar name "Liberty Bell" when it was rung at the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776. In later years, a small group of abolitionists known as the Friends of Freedom, founded in Boston, issued a series of publications entitled "The Liberty Bell" from 1839 to 1858. Inscribed in the 1839 issue of the pamphlet is a sonnet that reads, "Suggested by the inscription of the Philadelphia Liberty Bell." The crown of the bell is encircled with the words from Leviticus 35:10—"Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

    The Friends of Freedom associated with this publication were a number of distinguished anti-slavery and literary personalities such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Maria Child, and William Lloyd Garrison.

Location: Fifth and Market Streets

Philadelphia — Stenton

    Located in the Germantown section of the city, Stenton, built in 1728, was the former home of William Penn's secretary, James Logan. A Quaker, Logan was one of the most intellectual men in colonial America. His Georgian Colonial mansion housed America's finest private collection of books, which is now part of the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia (Free Library of Philadelphia).

    The house was occupied for a time in 1777 during the Revolutionary War by General George Washington and later by British General Sir William Howe, who made the home his headquarters for directing the Battle of Germantown.

    On the historic home is a plaque honoring Logan's servant, an African-American woman by the name of Dinah. By her quick thought and presence of mind, Dinah saved the mansion from being burned by British soldiers in the winter of 1777.

    According to family members many years later, two British soldiers prepared to burn the mansion. When they went to the barn to get straw to set the fire, a British officer rode up with sword drawn and asked Dinah if she had seen any deserters. The wise old servant woman promptly replied that, "Two such have just gone to secrete themselves in the barn."

    The officer rode to the barn and chased the "deserters" away, and Stenton was saved. The Logan family continued to live in the mansion for six generations until 1900. It is maintained by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A plaque was dedicated in honor of the black woman with this inscription: In memory of Dinah, faithful, colored caretaker of Stenton, who by her quick thought and presence of mind, saved the mansion from being burned by the British soldiers in the winter of 1777.

    Although most historians in the past have said that Dinah was a slave, she had been freed by the Logans in the spring of 1776.

Location: In Stenton Park on Windrim Avenue near 18th Street

Philadelphia — The Pennsylvania Abolition Society

    Founded at the Sun Tavern in 1775 by Quakers and others as the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the group was reorganized as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1781. Listed among its members were such non-Quakers as Thomas Paine, Dr. Benjamin Rush, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Benjamin Franklin, who became its president.

    In later years, noted anti-slavery advocates such as William Still, Robert Purvis, and Quaker Lucretia Mott were included among the society's members. Since its earliest years, the society has sponsored schools for African-Americans and has acted as a spur to urge the city and state to provide a decent education.

    Today, the society continues to be an educational and civil rights organization connected with African-Americans.

Location: Pennsylvania State Historical Marker on Front Street below Chestnut Street

Philadelphia — Thomas Paine and Independence Hall

    Independence Hall and the Mall have been called the "most historic square mile in the United States." In the first floor Assembly room, delegates from all 13 colonies met on July 4, 1776, to approve the Declaration of Independence.

    Many of the distinguished signers of that historic document were slave owners. Included among non-slave owners were Dr. Benjamin Rush and his friend Thomas Paine. Rush, who was America's foremost physician during that period, openly encouraged Richard Allen and other prominent African-American leaders to seek abolition of slavery, while writing against the horrid institution himself. Rush's influence with the African-American community was tremendous. It also was Rush who encouraged Thomas Paine to write his fiery pamphlet, suggesting the name "Common Sense," that called for immediate independence from Great Britain.

    Paine was a genuine lover of liberty and bluntly attacked all forms of its abuse. His first published article in America, in the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, March 8, 1775, was a scathing attack against slavery. He also wrote an article introducing Phillis Wheatley to the Philadelphia public.

    Wheatley was brought as a child from Africa and sold on the docks of Boston. Before she was 20, she achieved some renown as a poet. She holds the distinguished honor of being the first African-American to publish a book in 1773. After receiving a copy of her book, General George Washington wrote her a letter of commendation.

    When Paine died in 1809, in a shabby lodging house with no grieving friends present, he had accomplished more for human freedom than any of his contemporaries. He had no grave and his bones were lost, yet his published writings are read by people throughout the world.

Philadelphia — St. George's Methodist Church

    Founded in 1767, St. George's Methodist Church is the oldest continuously used Methodist Church in the world. Richard Allen, who had purchased his freedom in Delaware, joined the Methodist Society at age 17 in 1777. Allen commenced traveling in 1783 as a circuit lay minister, conducting religious services in three states.

    He returned to Philadelphia and joined the white congregation of St. George's Methodist Church. Allen was licensed to preach in 1784 and was permitted to hold services at 5:00 in the morning. Due to the increasing number of African-Americans who attended the church to hear Allen preach, tensions increased and white parishioners began to complain.

    One Sunday morning, a white sexton met the African-American parishioners at the door and sent them to the gallery to sit in "Negro" pews. As Allen observed and heard considerable scuffling, he noticed that the trustees were pulling Absalom Jones and William White off their knees. When the prayer was over, the African-American parishioners, led by Allen and Jones, withdrew from St. George's Church.

Location: 235 North Fourth Street

Philadelphia — Graff House

    Jacob Graff, a bricklayer, built the original house in 1775. It was a small, brick dwelling with two rooms on each floor. The original house was razed in 1883. The present reconstructed house was built for the Bicentennial celebration as a recreation of the place where Thomas Jefferson resided during the summer of 1776.

    Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in rooms he rented from Jacob Graff. As chairman of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence Jefferson, a slave owner himself, wrote into his first draft a paragraph condemning human bondage in which he denounced George III for his propagation of slavery in the colonies.

    But slavery was too profitable to the southern delegation and Jefferson's words were omitted from the final version of the Declaration as adopted by the Continental Congress of the United States on July 4, 1776. For freed and enslaved African-Americans, the principles of liberty and equality set forth in the Declaration were meaningless as long as they were not represented in the document.

Location: 7th and Market Streets

Philadelphia — Runaway Slave Newspaper Advertisements

    Africans understandably were constantly seeking freedom by running away from their owners. The American Weekly Mercury, the first newspaper printed in Philadelphia in the year 1719, advertised in its second issue that a bright Mulatto by the name of Johnny had run away. The sale of black women slaves frequently appeared in this newspaper. Following are some ads as they appeared:


Excerpted from African Americans in Pennsylvania by Charles L. Blockson. Copyright © 2001 by Charles L. Blockson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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