Some people trace their roots back many generations with letters, a family Bible that records events, and stories that connect them to the past or identify the place from which their family came.
The descendants of enslaved Africans who were brutally kidnapped and forcibly brought to America with few personal possessions find tracing their family histories difficult.
By the chilling and oppressive system of enslavement, Africans were torn from their families and deprived of many direct ties to their cultures, values, and religions. Enslavement interrupted their connection to the rich oral histories of Africa and to the numerous powerful and sophisticated civilizations that thrived there. In fact, some of those communities derived their wealth and strength from engaging in the slave trade.
Slave owners, North and South, feared rebellion. The enslaved people were often beaten to break their spirits and whipped to compel them to obedience.
Some owners worked their enslaved people to exhaustion and deprived them of adequate food, clothing, and shelter.
Owners were free to beat, torture, or rape the people whom them enslaved. Families might be torn apart as mothers, fathers, and their children were separately bought and sold to new masters. Most were intentionally
kept illiterate. Few slave-authored written records survive except for autobiographies written after escaping or gaining freedom. Yet, family histories were kept alive through storytelling, lore, and oral histories.
Enslaved on Plantations
The day-to-day lives of enslaved people varied from place to place. Most enslaved people who lived in southern states were physically more remote from their slaveholders and were able to preserve more of the cultural attributes of the African societies they had left behind. They integrated African traditions with European and Native American cultures, creating strong communities sustained by religious faith.
Resistance to bondage took many forms. The most dramatic were physical assaults against slaveholders and their property. Rebellions and uprisings were met with swift retaliation and harsh punishment or death. Those who managed to escape were often returned to the exhausting and inhumane conditions they had fled; and those who harbored escapees were dealt with harshly.
Freedom appealed to all enslaved people. Many like Hercules and Oney Judge took action and escaped. Sympathetic individuals also provided refuge for others desperate for freedom. Free African sailors, numerous in Philadelphia, helped some escape by boat from the West Indies and U.S. coastal ports to freedom in the North.
As a port city and the nation's capital, Philadelphia attracted a diverse population, and by 1790, it was the largest city in the nation with a population of 28,522. By 1800, the population had grown to 41,200; its inhabitants included free and enslaved people of African descent, immigrants and indentured servants from Europe and the Caribbean, and many who fled the violence of the Haitian revolution by escaping to the United States. Trade with other U.S. cities and foreign nations made Philadelphia a bustling port with commerce, construction, and government that created opportunities for African descendants and others seeking employment and to learn a craft or trade.
Enslaved in Philadelphia
Enslaved people of African descent in the North, deprived of fundamental freedom, endured profoundly difficult lives. Controlled by others, their families were always threatened by forced separation, and their work, often exhausting, was nearly always unpaid.
Most of those enslaved in Philadelphia lived in or near houses with white people. They worked to support their owners' lives, and they also observed their daily routines. Few enslaved people arrived in Pennsylvania directly from Africa after 1764, but African culture persisted in some rituals, such as burials. By the 1790s, they were the second or third generation born in North America and had adapted to the culture that surrounded them. Most were increasingly removed from the world their forebears had left.
Philadelphia's enslaved people observed first-hand how free African descendants moved about the city. The city was a hub of several escape routes for many seeking freedom. Here, those seeking their freedom often found sympathetic assistance, despite the threat of punishment for helping fugitives.
Philadelphia was the scene of numerous trials to free——or deny liberty to——the enslaved. In 1800, Judge Richard Peters heard the case of two American ships carrying enslaved Africans captured by the U.S. sloop Ganges. Peters ruled that the ships violated the 1794 Slave Trade Act that prohibited American ships from engaging in the overseas slave trade. All Africans on board were freed into the care of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and given the surname "Ganges."
How Did Enslaved People Become Free?
Owners always were legally able to emancipate enslaved Africans and their descendants. A few, such as George Washington, chose to do so in their wills; some emancipated them during their lifetimes.
Pennsylvania passed the nation's first gradual abolition act in 1780. This law only freed those born to enslaved mothers on or after March 1, 1780. Even these children were held as indentured servants until they reached 28 if their master or mistress so desired. In fact, a great many were freed before age 28.
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were both born into slavery. Allen and his family had been enslaved by a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, Benjamin Chew, who later served as Chief Justice of the colony of Pennsylvania. When Allen was a child, the family was sold to a Delaware plantation owner, Stokely Sturgis.
Appealing to religious conviction, many enslaved people——including Absalom Jones and Richard Allen——convinced their owners to allow them to keep a portion of their earnings. After five years, Allen was able to buy his freedom and that of his brother for $2,000 each.
By 1778, Jones had purchased his wife's freedom so that their children would be free. It took him another seven years to buy his own freedom and seven additional years to buy that of his older son, who had been born enslaved.
Refuge In Church
In the fall of 1792, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other free African members were forced to give up their seats in St. George's Methodist Church to white members. They had already begun planning an independent church; this accelerated the plan. They left the congregation and Allen soon founded what became known as "Mother Bethel," the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the United States. The same year, Jones helped found the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and served as its pastor. Mother Bethel and the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas continue to thrive in Philadelphia.
A small but growing cadre worked to abolish the international slave trade and slavery as well. In 1794, a handful of white Quakers and others in the Pennsylvania Abolition Society urged people to prepare African children "for becoming the good citizens of the United States, a privilege and elevation to which we look forward with pleasure."
Organizing From Within
When free African-Philadelphians, including Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, petitioned Congress with their grievances in 1799, they considered themselves "in common with... every other class of Citizens." Though Congress rejected their petition, Jones, Allen, and other free Africans continued to debate, petition, and publish newspapers and pamphlets, arguing for their citizenship and the freedom of all enslaved persons. Ultimately, their work helped fuel a growing international movement against slavery and inequality.
Many question why so many waited to free their enslaved until they were forced to do so by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
It took 66 years and the wrenching Civil War before nearly four million men, women, and children of African descent became free in the United States.
[Illustration captions, from left to right, read]
Left: Oney Judge, with the aid of free people of African descent in Philadelphia, successfully found passage on a ship to New Hampshire after fleeing the President's House. Washington advertised for her return. Concerned about his public image, he had his steward, Frederick Kitt, sign this advertisement. Washington later learned her whereabouts and made repeated efforts to have her returned. She remained free, though a fugitive from the law, for the rest of her life.
Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser, May 26, 1796, page 3. Courtesy, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Right: James Forten, born free, served in the American Revolution, and then became a respected sail maker, business owner—employing workers of African descent and white workers—and a leader in Philadelphia's free community of people of African descent.
James Forten, artist unknown, n.d. Courtesy, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (H.S.P.). The Leon Gardiner Collection.
Background: Old Leffee [?] House by Edward William Mumford, ca. 1844. Courtesy, The Library Company of Philadelphia.
Right: Absalom Jones, who bought his freedom after years of toil, was the ordained minister and founder of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
Absalom Jones, by Raphaelle Peale, 1810. Courtesy, Delaware Art Museum , Gift of Absalom Jones School, 1971.
Right: After buying his freedom, Richard Allen founded and served as first minister of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Richard Allen, artist unknown, c.1785. Courtesy, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
Above: Absalom Jones and Richard Allen wrote this moving account of the heroic service by Free African Society members during Philadelphia's deadly yellow fever epidemic in 1793. Allen and Jones skillfully rebutted accusations against their members by the influential white writer, Mathew Carey. They were the first authors of African descent to copyright a pamphlet in the United States.
A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia, in the year 1793... (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1794). Courtesy, Independence National Historical Park (INDE10602).