Historical Markers
Free African Society [American Revolution] Historical Marker
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Free African Society [American Revolution]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
6th and Lombard Sts., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

The presence of enslaved African Americans in Pennsylvania and the other thirteen colonies posed a serious ideological dilemma for the leaders of the American Revolution, who in their power struggle with Parliament championed their own "natural rights" of liberty and freedom, and asserted that they were being enslaved by unjust laws. When the War for Independence began, some state militias permitted enslaved African Americans to fight.

Determined that the army would not be a refuge for runaways, the newly formed Continental army in October 1775 excluded them from service. But as the war dragged on and the need for manpower became more acute, Congress in 1777 began to fix quotas for each state, and in Pennsylvania as other northern states - Massachusetts being the sole exception - men eligible for service were permitted to send their black slaves in their stead. For this service they were promised their freedom at the conclusion of the war.
Broadside, "To the free Africans and other free people of color in the United...

The new democratic ideology of the American Revolution, with its emphasis on equality and individual liberty, forced Pennsylvanians to reconsider the place of African Americans in post-Revolutionary society. Quakers, in particular, were among the first to commit to abolitionism, for they viewed slavery as a fundamental contradiction to the Society of Friends' belief in the spiritual equality of all human beings. Indeed, German Quakers in 1688 had issued the marker first formal protest against slavery in North America. In the decades that followed Pennsylvania Quakers led the abolition movement in the Americas. In 1758, for example, Pennsylvania Quakers condemned the slave trade and slavery itself. After Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1776 banned slaveholding among its members and threatened expulsion of those who did not comply, many of the city's Quakers took their anti-slavery crusade into the larger society.

Joining anti-slavery organizations and lobbying the state legislature to make the "peculiar institution" illegal, Quakers helped to secure the passage of a marker gradual abolition act on February 29, 1780, making Pennsylvania the first state to initiate emancipation. According to that measure, all slave children born in Pennsylvania after March 1st of that year would be emancipated when they reached the age of twenty-eight.

By 1800, all but fifty-five of Philadelphia's more than 6,400 blacks were free, but they also were caught in a precarious position between slavery and freedom. Outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's gradual abolition law proved to be very gradual indeed. In 1810 there were still 795 enslaved African Americans in the Commonwealth, and the last slave did not attain freed until the 1840s.

Free blacks shared some of the rights and privileges of other free men, but they also confronted special legal, economic, and social restrictions. The legal principle that color was sufficient grounds for presuming slave status made free blacks vulnerable to kidnapping and sale back into slavery. Even if they managed to escape the ruthlessness of the slave catcher, free blacks in Pennsylvania still faced discrimination as well as competition from slave, indentured, and free white labor. Whether free or in bondage, Pennsylvania's African Americans found it hard to rise above the status of slavery. In response they attempted to organize institutions for their economic betterment and mutual protection.
Oil on paper portrait of Absalom Jones wearing a black robe and a white collar.
Absalom Jones, 1810, by Raphaelle Peale.

Under the Abolition Act of 1780, black Pennsylvanians gained the right to own property, make contracts, vote, and protect their families. But their struggle for equality would prove long and hard. Denied the use of white schools, they began their own. Protesting against seating restrictions in the city's white churches, African Americans, led by Methodist minister and black civic leader Richard Allen, organized the Free African Society in 1787. Among the other notable founders of this society was James Dexter, a free black coachman in whose house some of the organizational meetings took place.

Dedicated to the mutual aid, support, and development of leaders within the city's growing black community, the Free African Society raised funds to establish black churches and provided relief for "the free Africans and their descendants of the City of Philadelphia." It also made crucial connections in the white community and gathered new recruits, including many ex-slaves, to operate organizations of their own making that would assume a guardianship role over the conduct of the city's blacks.

Allen would go on in 1787 to establish markerMother Bethel Church, the founding church of black Methodism, and later become the first bishop of the African Methodist Church of North America. Absalom Jones, another early member of the Free African Society, established St. Thomas's in 1794, the first Episcopal church for blacks in America, and was later ordained the first black Episcopal priest in America.

In a selfless act that would eventually lead to its own dissolution, the Free African Society also demonstrated the humanitarian commitment of Philadelphia's African Americans to the early republic during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. Members of the Free African Society served as nurses throughout the infected areas of the city and as carters who removed victims of the plague from their households to local cemeteries. Whites believed that African Americans were immune to the disease until a month after its outbreak when black volunteers became infected by the score. Even then, they continued their relief work, despite white accusations of thievery.

In the end, the heroic efforts of the Free African Society resulted in its financial ruin. Having accumulated a debt of 177 pounds due to the expenses of bedding and moving victims of the Yellow Fever, the Society was forced to close at the end of the year. But its legacy would continue through the leadership of the city's African American churches and a thriving black community, which numbered over 6,400 people, nearly 44 percent of Pennsylvania's total black population.
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