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Preserving Oregon’s African-American History
Since 1993 the Oregon Black Pioneers, an all volunteer non-profit organization based in Salem, Oregon, has been committed to preserving African-American history and culture in the state. OBP’s goal is to educate Oregonians and others about African-Americans contributions to Oregon’s history; to tell the stories of these pioneers through presentations, exhibits, and books; and to partner with school districts and historical organizations statewide.
Several years ago the organization developed a small resource booklet and study guide on Oregon’s black history, which was distributed through the Salem-Keizer School District and Marion County Historical Society. The OBP has also partnered with the Salem Multicultural Institute to present annual lectures during Black History Month.
The Oregon Black Pioneers point to their work with the Friends of the Pioneer Cemetery as one of its most exciting projects to date, leading to the discovery of the remains of more than 40 black pioneers buried at the cemetery located in Salem, in both marked and unmarked graves. In 2007 the organization presented the City of Salem with a stone marker to honor the memories of those pioneers. The ceremony launched an exhibit called “Salem’s Black Voices” which told the stories of many of those pioneers.
In 2011 OBP published its first book Perseverance: A History of African Americans in Oregon’s Marion and Polk Counties. A second, African Americans of Portland was published two years later. Today, the organization continues to hold annual fundraising events highlighting various aspects of black history and culture, including its signature gala event.
Because of their work in preserving Oregon’s black history, the organization has received numerous awards, including the David Duniway Award for Historic Preservation in 2009 from the Marion County Historical Society; the Education Award in 2009 From the Oregon Assembly for Black Affairs; the 2010 Heritage Award from American Legacy magazine, and in 2014 OBP was nominated for the McMath Award presented by the University of Oregon.
Looking to the future, OBP is working on the development of the Oregon African American Museum (OAAM). For additional information on the Oregon Black Pioneers organization or to make a donation in support of their efforts please visit www.oregonblackpioneers.org.
Remembering Lorraine HansberryJanuary 12, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of one of America’s great playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry. She is best known as the author of A Raisin In the Sun, which opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. On the surface, the play tells the story of a family living on the South Side of Chicago that is faced with the difficult decision of how to spend $10,000 in life insurance. Underpinning the dilemma is a battle royale between materialism, idealism, and a family’s struggle to save the soul of its husband, brother, and son, Walter Lee. Added to the turmoil is the life-changing decision to move into a white neighborhood that will likely not accept them. The original cast, which included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, and Louis Gossett, Jr., garnered glowing critical and popular reviews.
Hansberry “forced both blacks and whites to re-examine the deferred dreams of black America,” New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote on the 25th anniversary of the “seminal play which sparked the growth of the black theater movement in the 1960s.”
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago in a family that might have been considered rich during the Great Depression, Hansberry knew something about the challenges that came with integration. Her father, who worked in real estate, moved his family to an all-white neighborhood where they were often confronted and bullied by angry residents, causing Hansberry’s mother to patrol their property at night with a loaded pistol.
Passionate about the arts, including painting, sketching, and sculpting, Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She planned to study theatrical set design, but was discouraged by a professor who told her not to waste her time. So she moved to New York City, where she held various jobs as a tagger in the garment industry, a typist, a camp counselor, a recreation director, a writer, and then an associate editor at a newspaper called Freedom, founded by the actor and activist Paul Robeson. It was during this period that she began to work on A Raisin in the Sun.
The drama would go on to be voted the best play in 1959 by the New York Drama Critics Circle, beating out entries by, among others, Tennessee Williams (for his play Sweet Bird of Youth). Hansberry became the youngest person ever, at age 28, to be so honored.
Today A Raisin in the Sun can be found in every library. A 1961 movie starring Sidney Poitier and other original cast members was released in 1961, and in 2008, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs starred along with Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, and Sanaa Lathan in a made-for-television movie.
Although Hansberry suffered from writer’s block, she did pen another play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, about Greenwich Village intellectuals. Unfortunately, five days after the play opened, Hansberry went into convulsions and slipped into a coma. Cancer of the pancreas had spread to her brain. On January 12, 1965, Lorraine Hansberry died. The theater where Sign had opened went dark in her memory, and the play did not reopen. Gone much too soon, she was 34.
As we remember Lorraine Hansberry and her tremendous talent as a writer, we recall something her close friend, James Baldwin said: “That marvelous laugh and that marvelous face, Sweet Lorraine.”
Above: Rashid Johnson. The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Thurgood), 2008. Lambda print, Ed. 2/5, 69 x 55 1/2 in. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Art school at Rutgers was just 45 minutes away from New York City by train, and it was the 1980s with a cast of artists showing at museums and galleries and populating art magazines that still consisted mostly of white men, with some white women artists, such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer, and a scant few men of color—graffiti artists like Fred Braithwaite (Fab Five Freddy), Futura 2000, and Dondi (Donald White) up out of the hip-hop scene to excite the landscape.
Of living, working artists of color beyond hip-hop at that time, I saw few, especially in the mainstream. Sure, there was my own wonderful life-drawing professor, Lloyd McNeill, a renaissance artist: painter, poet, jazz musician, photographer—his works were and are inspirational. And there was Jean-Michel Basquiat, the “radiant child” of Rene Ricard’s ArtForum article of the same title. That was it. No Howardena Pindell. No Elizabeth Catlett. No Romare Bearden. No Jacob Lawrence. No Betye Saar, just to name a few.
No Lorna Simpson, or Robert Colescott, or recent MacArthur fellow Carrie Mae Weems, all of whom along with 27 other artists are represented in a show called “30 Americans” that was recently at the Frist Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and will be traveling to the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.
The title of the exhibit is wry and sweet, and the curators of the show decided not to include “African-American” in the description. “Nationality is a statement of fact,” say Don and Merrel Rubell of the Miami-based Rubell Family Collection, who sponsor the show. “While racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all.” They chose the number 30 as an acknowledgement that the show does not include everyone that could be in it.
The depth and breadth of how each artist expresses him- or herself through the more than 70 pieces—paintings, photographs, sculpture, and multi-media installations—is a lesson in understanding that black Americans are not and never were a monolith walking in lockstep.
“‘30 Americans’ contains a near-comprehensive repertoire of the tropes of black postmodernism . . .” writes the artist Michele Wallace in the catalog, “in which the negativities of slavery, Jim Crow, blackface minstrelsy, racism, sexism, and sexual slavery are constantly invoked and interrogated for the rich, dark spaces and designs that their still-warm undersides may reveal.”
Tough, uneasy critiques (the museum warns on its website that “some content in this exhibition many not be appropriate for all audiences. Visitor discretion is advised) of the African-American’s place in history, and a past and deliberate (a)void(ance) of black artists by the mainstream art world are are supplied by artists both established and emerging who, through their chosen mediums, turn mainstream culture on its head: Robert Colescott plays out on canvas the drama of Pygmalion, in which an upper class linguist transforms a poor gutter snipe into a lady, with a white man and black woman. Kehinde Wiley, who has been compared to the great early European portraitists makes no bones about referencing Diego Velasquez’s “Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares.” The pose is a classical equestrian portrait from “back then,” the person in the red Negro Leagues hoodie is here and now. The canvas is outsized, monumental; it says “this black person is important.” Iona Rozeal Brown, working in the style of Taisho Yoshitoshi’s traditional Japanese woodblock prints, recasts the central figure of a courtesan with thoroughly twenty-first century black woman.
“30 Americans” will open at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans February 10 and will run until June 13, 2014. For more information and a full list of artists visit the museum’s website. A 224-page catalog is available through the Rubell Foundation.—Audrey Peterson
On July 2, 1839, Sengbe Pieh, better known as Joseph Cinqué, and some 50 or more fellow Africans killed the captain and three of the crew of the Spanish schooner La Amistad. The plan was to turn the vessel around and go back to Africa, from where they had been kidnapped and enslaved. They entrusted the Spanish navigator, Don Pedro Montez, whose life they spared, with steering the ship. He steered it along the North American coast off Montauk Point on Long. The Africans—Mende from Sierre Leone—surrendered the ship to the U.S. Navy only after determining that the United States was a “free” country.
It took two years for United States v. The Amistad to land in front of the Supreme Court. During that time, abolitionists publicized the plight of the Africans in newspapers, sent one of the Mende, Kale, on a speaking tour, and even mounted a production about the mutiny called The Black Schooner, at Niblo’s Garden theater in lower Manhattan. The Spanish slave traders, in an attempt to retrieve their “property” claimed indemnity for the enslaved Africans “pirates who, by revolt, murder, and robbery, had deprived” them of what was rightfully theirs.
The Africans were transported to New Haven, Connecticut, to await trial, and New Haven resident William H. Townsend made sketches of the Amistad captives while they were there. Yale University acquired 22 of these drawings when they were donated by a distant descendant of Townsend in 1934. He was 18 when he made the sketches. What sets them apart is the natural quality of the drawings, with not even a hint of caricature. Along with the images here are detailed biographies taken from John Warner Barber’s “A History of the Amistad Captives” published in 1840. In these bios, how each person was enslaved and by whom varies, and although in two of the descriptions presented here, a tribal leader and a family member are complicit, they do not represent all of the Mende stories. The idea that the Mende were the property of any person or entity—whether it was their tribal leader of family members; as salvage of the naval officers who took custody of the ship; the Cuban slave traders to where the Africans were bound; or Queen Isabella II of Spain who claimed them for her country—was tested and found wanting. Two years after the mutiny, in 1841, former President John Quincy Adams argued that the Mende kidnapped from their homeland, had the right to defend themselves against, and if necessary kill, anyone who stood in the way of their freedom. The Africans won the case, and the next year, helped by abolitionist Lewis Tappan and the American Missionary Association, Cinque and his friends were back in their own country.
Gi-la-ba-ru [Grab-eau] (have mercy on me,) was born in Fu- Lu, in the Mendi country, two moons’ journey into the interior. His name in the public prints is generally spelt Grabeau. He was the next after Cinqué in command of the Amistad. His parents are dead, one brother and one sister living. He is married, but no children’ he is a planter of rice. His king Baw-baw, lived at Fu-lu. He saw Cinqué at Fulu and Fadzhinna, in Bombali. He was caught on the road when going to Taurang, in the Bandi country, to buy clothes. His uncle had bought two slaves in Bandi, and gave them in payment for a debt; one of them ran away, and he (Grabeau) was taken for him. He was sold to a Vai-man, who sold him to Laigo, a Spaniard at Lomboko. Slaves in this place are put into a prison, two are chained together by the legs, and the Spaniards give them rice and fish to eat. In his country has seen people write—they wrote from right to left. They have cows, sheep, and goats, and wear cotton cloth. Smoking tobacco is a common practice. None but the rich eat salt, it costs so much. Has seen leopards and elephants, the latter of which, are hunted for ivory. Grabeau is four feet eleven inches in height; very active, especially in turnings somersets. Besides Mendi, he speaks Vai, Kon-no and Gissi. He aided John Ferry by his knowledge of Gissi, in the examination at Hartford.
Kimbo (cricket) is 5 ft. 6 in. in height, with mustaches and long beard; in middle life, and is intelligent. He was born at Maw-ko-ba, a town in the Mendi country; his father was a gentleman, and after his death, his king took him for his slave, and gave him to his son Ban-ga, residing in the Bullom country. He was sold to a Bullom man, who sold him to a Spaniard at Lomboko. He counts thus: 1, etå; 2, filî; 3, kiau-wá; 4, náeni; 5, lóelu; 6, wêta; 7, wafurá; 8 wayapá; 9, tá-u; 10, pu.—Never saw any books in his country. When people die in his country, they suppose the spirit lives, but where, they cannot tell.
Mar-gru (black snake) 4ft.3in. a young girl, with a large, high forehead; her parents were living; she had four sisters and two brothers; she was pawned by her father for a debt, which being unpaid, she was sold into slavery.
Sing-be [Cin-que] (generally spelt Cinquez) was born in Ma-ni, in Dzho-poa, i.e. in the open land, in the Men-di country. The distance from Mani to Lomboko, he says, is ten suns, or days. His mother is dead, and he lived with his father. He has a wife and three children, one son and two daughters. His son’s name is Ge-waw, (God.) His king, Ka-lum-bo, lived at Kaw- men-di, a large town in Mendi country. He is a planter of rice, and never owned or sold slaves. He was seized by four men, when traveling in the road, and his right hand tied to his neck. Ma- ya-gi-la-lo sold him to Ba-ma-dzha, son of Shaka, king of Gen- du-ma, in the Vai country. Bamadzha carried him to Lomboko and sold him to a Spaniard. He was with Mayagilalo three nights,with Bamadzha one month, and at Lomboko two months. He had heard of Pedro Blanco, who lived at Te-i-lu, near Lomboko.
Despite an all-out effort by President Roosevelt to convince Randolph to cancel the march, the activist refused to budge, and in June Roosevelt – with great reluctance—signed Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination in hiring for defense industries as well as federal bureaus, and including civil service jobs. The order created the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) to receive complaints, investigate charges of discrimination and take action – though it possessed no enforcement powers – to resolve outstanding problems.The march, to be held July 1, promised to be quite a spectacle with 100,000 people predicted to descend on the nation’s capital—a nightmare for the Roosevelt Administration that feared racial violence and the embarrassment it would cause in front of the rest of the world. The president’s authority undermined by his own citizens was bad at any time, but a disaster with America’s allies at war.
Randolph had wanted to integrate the military, but conceded when military top brass refused to experiment with desegregation; it would have to wait until after World War II. Randolph called off the march, but he, along with a younger activist named Bayard Rustin would be at it again, successfully petitioning President Harry S Truman to sign, in 1948, an Executive Order 9981 desegregating the military.
With the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington just a week away, it’s a good time to think about the folks who dedicated and sometimes sacrificed their lives to the civil rights movement. Too often, though, we remember those individuals who have become icons, MLK, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, a few names come easily to mind. We dig deeper: A. Philip Randolph, Medgar Evers, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth—there are many more, of course, all key players, (almost all since passed on). Still, there are people—those who worked behind the scenes; those whose actions although effective, did not make national news; those without whose sacrifice and sustained dedication, the civil rights movement would not have succeeded.
Five years ago American Legacy featured a story about Norman and Velma Hill, longtime activists who in 1960 began their career fighting for civil and workers’ rights on a beach on the south shore of Chicago’s Lake Michigan. It ended in a vicious attack that had serious consequences for the Hills. Velma lost a baby as a direct result of her head injury, and was tragically never able to have a child.
But this did not stop her or Norman from steaming ahead full force into lives of activism. For years they worked closely with civil rights and labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin on campaigns such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The last part of the march’s name was deliberate—“for us, along with Randolph and Bayard, the economic component was essential in obtaining freedom and equality for black people,” says Norman Hill in a forthcoming memoir about his and Velma’s life together as activists.
The march, held on the centenary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to the consciousness of millions of people worldwide. It helped to galvanize support behind what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the peaceful march of thousands was not an idea that sprang fully realized from King, the culmination of all of the sit-ins, protests, boycotts, and marches that had come before it. Randolph, the Hills knew, had threatened Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt more than two decades earlier, in 1941.
“By the winter of 1962, Randolph, again with Bayard at his side, was considering another march on Washington. But this time it was to pressure and call attention to America’s still unkept promises to its black citizens, now 100
years out of chattel bondage,” says Norman Hill, “yet still burdened with glaring economic, political and social inequalities. It was early the follow year and in this atmosphere that Velma and I were summoned to Randolph’s
office in Harlem. . . .
“When Randolph called, you came, and you came willingly.”
The Hills, who at the time were both working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)—Norman as national program director and Velma as a field worker, were tasked with helping to figure out how to bring together all the major civil rights groups, or what the consequences would be if they could not galvanize what Randolph called the Big Six: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the National Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Randolph’s newly created Negro American Labor Council.
“What Randolph wanted was the entire movement on board, the left and the right, and the labor movement as well,” says Velma Hill.
He wanted a coalition. And he got it. His decades of experience and the respect the leadership of each organization had for him paid off. The Hills believe that no one could have brought everyone together like Randolph. Says Velma, “When he started talking, people got still.”
While Velma worked out of CORE’s New York headquarters, Norman traveled to oversee the organizers in cities strategic to the march in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the upper Southern states. By April of 1963 the date for the march—August 28—had been set. Norman worked with the local branches and chapters of the Big Six, later the Big Ten, including the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, the American Jewish Congress, the National Council of Churches, and the United Automobile Workers.
“Wherever I went, I could feel the enthusiasm for the march. So it wasn’t difficult for me to convey that this was something big, something important, and that all who could be a part of it, must,” says Norman Hill. “I depended on the local people to contact and encourage broader support, including religious groups and whites.”
“Norman and I knew it was special, but it really didn’t dawn on us until it happened just how special that day really was. It was a Wednesday that felt like a Sunday. . . . There was this air of real excitement. People were saying hello to people that they didn’t know. People were shaking hands and people were looking for people they knew. It was just wonderful.
“I wasn’t with Norman at the march. I saw him and said hello to him, but I wasn’t with him.”
People were told to arrive at the Washington Monument by 10 a.m., where they could pick up signs to carry. The New York Times headlines read the next morning: “200,000 March for Civil Rights in Orderly Washington Rally; President Sees Gain for Negro.”
“I could see that Velma had positioned herself near the front of the platform that was set up on the base of the Lincoln Memorial,” says Norman. “I was on that platform, at the back of the stage near Bayard, who was a chain-smoking, perpetual motion machine that day.
“On the platform, I was so close that I did not need the public address system to hear what was being said, and sang, at the podium. It was a tremendously good feeling standing there, being enveloped in a special atmosphere, looking out on all those people swept up in a massive celebration. It was like Velma said, unique, a unique spirit, a unique, great, huge outpouring of humanity.”–Audrey Peterson
Above from left: “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.,” 1942; “A Choice of Weapons,” 1965; Ethel Shariff in Chicago, 1963.
The late, great Gordon Parks—who died in March 2006 was, among other things, a social activist artist. Setting aside his films—The Learning Tree and Shaft—his poetry, and musical compositions, Parks was a prolific recorder of history. He was pragmatic enough to know, early on, that if he wanted to keep taking photos he had to earn a living at it—and so he got his first chance at learning to “shoot fashions” as he was given to say, by strolling into a white-owned Minneapolis dress shop in 1938, and asking the husband-and-wife owners, the Murphys, if he could have a job photographing the gowns there. Mr. Murphy gave him short shrift, but Mrs. Murphy gave him a job.
That job eventually took him to the Farm Security Administration, where in 1942 he shot American Gothic, Washington, D.C., which he named after Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting. You have probably seen it. A black cleaning woman stands with a broom in her right hand, and a mop propped against the desk next to her. Behind her hangs the American flag. It’s not an homage to the plain living American, as in Wood’s painting; it was an indictment of segregation and racism in our capital city, something some of the white southern members of the FSA, who didn’t want Parks there in the first place, would have used against him.
“Stryker said you’ve got the right idea, but you’re going to get us all fired,” Mr. Parks said in a telephone interview in Fall 2005. “He put it at the bottom of the pile, but he told me that I should stay with her. He said you had to write cold and hard about black life in America and not allow whites to address the words with the consolation of a few tears.” Parks took it to heart, but wrote his words with images.
Parks stuck with Ella Watson, took photos of her in her apartment with her family, and attending church. She was a person beyond the ironic emblem of African-American as second class citizen. Roy Stryker’s words stuck with Parks, who continued, throughout his life, to capture his fellow blacks in all kinds of situations, from all walks of life.
His work for Life magazine—a chronicle of poverty in Brazil; an exposé of gang violence in Harlem; a chronicle of racial segregation in the deep South; photographic essay on Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam—are moving, stunning, brilliant, memorable, the expert work of a gifted lensman dedicated to exposing and fighting racism, poverty, and injustice.
Gordon Parks: Photographs at His Centennial at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) in San Francisco celebrates the life of this great American artist with selections from his vast collection that speak of the black experience: An army of Black Muslim women; a portrait of the Fontanelle family from Harlem at the Poverty Board (Welfare Office) in Harlem; Parks wielding his camera in a self-portrait titled “A Choice of Weapons.”
And Ella Watson.
Gordon Parks: Photographs at His Centennial is showing until September 29, 2013. Also showing is J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere: Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday. Like Parks in America, Ojeikere described, with his camera, rapid political, social, and cultural change of his native Nigeria. The 50 photographs included in this exhibition, dating from 1955 to 2008, capture traditional Nigerian dress and hairstyles alongside popular Western-style interpretations. Hair styles can immediately evoke time and place, fixing the viewer in a country, a town, a society or community, and in an era or year. Ojeikere used hair as an important signifier as he documented the changing body politic of his young nation.
Above Image: Pepper Pot, A Scene in the Philadelphia Market, by John Lewis Krimmel, 1811.
From the time the Isabella, carrying 150 Africans, arrived from Bristol, England, until 1780, when Pennsylvania passed the first emancipation law in the United States, the city had watched enslaved Africans disembark onto its docks in chains, to be sold on the corner of Front and Market Streets in front of the London Coffee House. Today on that corner you’ll see only a shuttered brick building; this is often the way—we must see beyond the long-gone structures and tangible survivals to revive this other history.
As in many Northern towns and cities, whites who could afford to own slaves did so—even the city’s Quakers until they decided to own slaves was hypocrisy and banned it from its members in 1776. Often, even in the best households, here were no more than two or three. In the 1760s one in six white families in the city had slaves. Enslaved blacks in Philadelphia had a relatively easier time of it than their plantation-bound brothers and sisters. They lived, as did indentured servants, in the family home, were better fed and clothed, and had more freedom to move about the city—at least in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—as their tasks often required them to be out and about. This freedom to move around likely aided individuals like Hercules, by all accounts a highly skilled cook enslaved at George Washington’s presidential home—located on Sixth and Market Streets in the shadow of Independence Hall—in his successful escape from Washington and his wife Martha. The mansion is not there, but the National Park Service has built open-air footprint of the house that includes the “servant’s” quarters.
Free blacks in Philadelphia, as elsewhere, had to make a living on their own and it was often difficult to obtain work beyond the more menial jobs was available if one was unskilled, and many were. Free African-American women worked as domestics in the homes of middle and upper-class whites; others took in laundry and mending, or became milliners and seamstresses, working at home so they could care for their children. Some women were street vendors, plying foods such as Caribbean pepper pot and other snacks and treats. A smaller group of women became teachers or managed boarding houses.
Many black men worked alongside whites and picked up trades and skills, some of them becoming artisans in their own right. A number of African-Americans—after the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act there were few Africans in the city—learned carpentry, tailoring baking, and the like. Many did the hard work of domestics, porters, stevedores and longshoremen on the docks; others mastered the maritime trades, putting up with the hardships of a life at sea for decent pay—a highly skilled seamen was paid a larger percentage than one who was less so, and skin color mattered little. And there was the chance to see the world.
Despite the signs of black enterprise, many remained enslaved—the manumission act had called for gradual emancipation, meaning all children born to enslaved women after 1780 gained their freedom as adults, 25 for women, 28 for men. All enslaved people born before 1780 had their status change from slave to indentured servant, often in name, but not in practice.
By 1790 the first official U.S. census showed some 2,000 free blacks living in the city, and under the state’s constitution, African-Americans could vote until that right was rescinded in 1838. Still, by that year a healthy black middle class had been established. A listing of black tradespeople in the city and surrounding areas counted 656 individuals engaged in 57 vocations.
Tailors, shoemakers, builders, furniture makers, undertakers, outstanding among women entrepreneurs was Hetty Burr, a highly skilled and successful dressmaker who was married to a well-known community leader, John Burr. Mrs. Burr also spent a good deal of her time with other affluent women of color who worked with white social reformers Lucretia Mott and Sarah and Angelina Grimké to plan an abolitionists convention in 1838 in the City of Brotherly Love. Among the African-American women who had jointed Mott’s Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society were Amy Cassey, Charlotte Forten, and Forten’s three daughters.
Charlotte’s husband James Forten, was counted among the 19 black sail makers in the city. He became one of the wealthiest Americans of his day, and one time employed 40 people, white people as well as black. Born free in 1766, he went to sea at age 14 on a privateer, was captured by the British and was eventually released. He apprenticed to a master sailmaker named Robert Bridges, and when Bridges retired, Forten took over the business. His fortune by the early 1830s was estimated to be $100,000 (the equivalent of some few million dollars today). Forten championed the cause of immediate, rather than gradual, abolition and fought to change the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed bounty hunters to seize blacks without a warrant.
Two trades that were almost the exclusive territory of African-American men were that of barber and caterer, both of which could be very lucrative professions. Barber, wigmaker, and perfumer Joseph Cassey (married to Amy Cassey) built his fortune dressing the hair of the white upper class, investing his earnings in real estate. For more than 80 years, starting in 1845, the Cassey House at 243 Delancey Street held three generations of the family. The house still stands but is now privately owned. Robert Bogle was one of several successful caterers working in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. An ex-slave who who started out as a waiter, he opened a business providing meals for various occasions, frequently catering a funeral on an afternoon and a party that same evening. Bogle’s establishment, located on South Eighth Street off Sansom Street, where a pub named Coco’s now stand, mostly served Philadelphia’s white elite. Nicholas Biddle, director of the United States Bank, so appreciated Bogle’s service that he wrote an eight-verse “Ode to Bogle.”
For more on the lives of African-Americans in early Philadelphia, visit the Library Company of Philadelphia. Founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, the library has extensive archives on the city’s black founders, including images and other ephemera, as well as a Program in African American History (PAAH). You can also visit the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. Named for the noted black studies scholar and author, who donated the majority of his personal archive, the collection contains more than 500,000 items on the black experience.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia . . .
May 4, 2013 – 2016
The first thing people say when they learn about this exhibit is usually, “Slave ships came to Philadelphia?”. This exhibit, curated by the host of History Detectives Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, tells the lesser-known story of Philadelphia’s connection to The Middle Passage. The exhibit features original artifacts such as slave shackles and a business ledger documenting 90 slave sales between 1763-1764. This is thought to be one of few books left that depict how Africans were converted from individuals to property.
The African-American Heritage Tour Project: 7th Ward
Ongoing self-guided walking tour W. E. B. DuBois was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study on the American Negro. The neighborhood of interest, also known as the 7th Ward, became the subject matter for his famous book The Philadelphia Negro. Stops on the tour include DuBois’s Philadelphia residence; Mother Bethel A.M.E., the oldest piece of land continuously owned by African-Americans; and the Benjamin Banneker Institute.
Also curated by Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, Black Bodies is a unique collection of 33 war posters from all over the world displaying the hauntingly beautiful images of Africans and American-American people in war recruitment posters. The posters are part of Dr. Zuberi’s personal collection and this is the first time they have ever been on display.