RACE RELATIONS in PENNSYLVANIA
Not only was colonial Pennsylvania a slave-owning society, but the lives of free blacks in the colony were controlled by law. The restrictions had begun almost with the colony itself. After 1700, when Pennsylvania was not yet 20 years old, blacks, free or slave, were tried in special courts, without the benefit of a jury.
For a people who later protested against the fugitive slave laws, Pennsylvanians, when they had slaves themselves as property, used the full power of the law to protect them. "An Act for the better Regulation of Negroes" passed in the 1725-26 session, set especially high penalties for free blacks who harbored runaway slaves or received property stolen from masters. The penalties in such cases were potentially much higher than those applied to whites, and if the considerable fines that might accrue could not be paid, the justices had the power to order a free black person put into servitude.
Under other provisions of the 1725-26 act, free negroes who married whites were to be sold into slavery for life; for mere fornication or adultery involving blacks and whites, the penalty for the black person was to be sold as a servant for seven years. Whites in such cases faced different or lighter punishment. The law effectively blocked marriage between the races in Pennsylvania, but fornication continued, as the state's burgeoning mulatto population attested.
Other colonial Pennsylvania laws forbid blacks from gathering in "tippling-houses," carrying arms, or assembling in companies. These, however, were loosely or unevenly enforced. But throughout Pennsylvania colony, the children of free blacks, without exception, were bound out by the local justices of the peace until age 24 (if male) or 21 (if female).
All in all, the "free" blacks of colonial Pennsylvania led severely circumscribed lives; they had no control even over their own family arrangements, and they could be put back into servitude for "laziness" or petty crimes, at the mercy of the local authorities.
The 1780 act that abolished slavery in Pennsylvania freed no slaves outright, and relics of slavery may have lingered in the state almost until the Civil War. There were 795 slaves in Pennsylvania in 1810, 211 in 1820, 403 or 386 in 1830 (the count was disputed), and 64 in 1840, the last year census worksheets in the northern states included a line for "slaves."
The law of 1780 which abolished slavery in Pennsylvania actually had more immediate impact on the free blacks than the enslaved ones. The abolition of slavery was very gradual, while the restrictive laws on free blacks were lifted at once. The only rights of free whites that were not extended to them were those of voting and of serving in the state militia. There was actually some doubt about the voting, and on this point the act was interpreted differently in different places. In Philadelphia, blacks seemingly never voted. But in some of the western counties they did so in small numbers. York and Westmoreland were mentioned among these counties.
Blacks in the North, and in Pennsylvania in particular, improved their economic condition between 1790 and 1830 and some even attained a degree of material comfort.
The little borough of West Chester, some 20 miles west of Philadelphia, assessed seven black men in 1835, in a tax structure that counted only the more substantial property-owners. John Bond, 40, a huckster (that is, a peddler) owned land worth $8,000. Abraham D. Shadd, 49 that year, was a shoemaker and owned $5,000 in real estate as well as his own business. An oysterman named Fortune Fullerton, 50, was rated at $2,000, and Cato Smith, 65, a laborer, was valued at $1,000. Other black professionals in the town who owned real estate included John Gladman, 25, a barber; and William Cuff, 44, a blacksmith.
As the tax and census rolls suggest, blacks were also present among the household industries that formed the base of the town's economy. Cuff, the blacksmith, did $1,000 in business in 1849, making edge tools, barrel hoops, horseshoes, and doing “all kinds of country work.” He was one of only three blacksmiths in West Chester at the time.
Shadd, the shoemaker, had $800 invested in his shop, and spent $531 in 1849 on raw materials. He employed three men and one woman (possibly his children) and that year turned out 600 pair of boots and shoes, worth $1,600. He was a grandson of Elizabeth Jackson, a free black woman from Chadds Ford who had married Hans Schad, a Hessian soldier who had served under Braddock in 1755. Abraham lived and owned property in Wilmington before coming to West Chester. He was also an active abolitionist. He was president in 1833 of the National Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Color in the United States, and he was a delegate to the American Anti-Slavery Society meetings in 1835 and 1836. He opposed the colonization movement that was sending blacks to Liberia, and he urged African Americans in Wilmington to thrift, hard work and education. He lived in West Chester from at least 1835.
Yet even this modest success brought on a backlash from working-class whites. Insult and gratuitous humiliation of blacks became notable in Philadelphia by 1809. "The lower and rougher classes of white people, who were brought into closer contact with negroes, frequently committed acts of brutality and insolence utterly disgraceful." As a rule, perpetrators were never punished.
The resentment was largely based on economics. Self-respecting whites would not put themselves on an equality with blacks, which closed off some professions that they formerly had enjoyed. White daughters who had gone to work as servants in homes of rich people, for instance, would no longer do so once the wealthy started to hire black servants. This deprived poor white girls of one of their few honest means of work. One of the most common complaints about the flood of black runaways into the state from the South was that they depressed wages for white laborers.
The result was organized effort to thrust blacks out of paying jobs. A Pennsylvania abolition society report in 1821 noted in passing that blacks were "excluded from the most respectable and profitable employments of life, confined to the humblest and least gainful occupations." They were being squeezed out by petition and organized white labor action from even the most menial jobs. By 1824, the "prejudice and pride" of white competitors had effectively excluded blacks in Pennsylvania from turnpikes, canals, coal mines, brick-making, street-paving, and even from the occasional work of shoveling snow from Philadelphia's cobblestone streets.
Anti-abolitionist fever in the 1830s also increased prejudice. If the wealthy abolitionist leaders deliberately infuriated the American man in the street by advocating disunion and insulting the Constitution, it was the black citizens of the cities who often paid the price. At celebrations of Independence Day in the early 1830s, an author recalled years later, "part of the day's exercises which the boys took upon themselves was to stone and club colored people out of Independence Square, because 'niggers had nothing to do with the fourth of July.' "
But in addition to economics and politics, much of the rise in race prejudice in Pennsylvania was tied to the influx of blacks from the South and to the rising crime rates that resulted from it.
In colonial times, blacks seemed not disproportionate among the criminals of Pennsylvania, or at least they were not seriously complained of. As early as 1806, however, Friends lamented the deterioration in character of the black population of Philadelphia and laid the blame for it on the constant influx of runaways.
"On they come with all the accumulated depravity which they have been long accustomed to; such as lying, pilfering, stealing, swearing, deceit, and a thousand meaner vices, the fruits of slavery," a writer of 1805 complained, in reference to runaways from the South. "When they arrive, they almost generally abandon themselves to all manner of debauchery and dissipation, to the great annoyance of many of our citizens."
Joel Swayne, a farmer in East Marlborough Township, not far from the Mason-Dixon Line in Chester County, wrote to state Sen. William Jackson in 1843 about this problem. “It is obvious that an increasing prejudice is abroad against those of a dark skin,” he wrote. “[T]heir numbers are rapidly increasing by the ingress of perhaps the worst class the Slave states produce—the idle or infirm who are sent away, the vicious & insubordinate who run away. Thus the interests of masters and slaves concur in throwing into this State & perhaps this naborhood in particular those who as working men are driving away working citizens, for whom they are a very inferior substitute.”
The 1850 census showed 344 blacks and mulattos in West Chester: 234 of them native Pennsylvanians and fourteen born in other Northern states. The rest —- nearly one-third —- had been born in slave states (though not necessarily in slavery): 48 in Delaware, 24 in Maryland, 19 in North Carolina, 4 in Washington, D.C., and one in South Carolina. In 1847, a partial enumeration of blacks in Philadelphia showed nearly half had come from outside the state.
Not all the immigrants were as worthless as the majority were made out to be. In West Chester, Henry Spence arrived with his family from North Carolina in the 1830s and embarked on what would be a lucrative career running restaurants in the borough. Benjamin Freeman was born a slave in Queen Anne County, Maryland, in 1800, and manumitted at age 26. He then worked for a family in Delaware before coming to Chester County and working as a driver for various white-owned lumber yards. He saved enough money to buy a bull, named "Barney," and go into the hauling business on his own. "This original method of performing a useful employment was continued until sufficient means were obtained to purchase a horse and cart, which were used in hauling for the public as wanted," according to one reminiscence. "Afterwards another horse was added, both large and being well cared for reflected credit on their owner. In time a lot was purchased on Barnard Street, on a part of which a two-story brick dwelling was erected, back building afterwards added, all of which he paid for by his labor aided by the economical habits and industry of his wife, whose maiden name was Jane Holmes."
After 1816, however, the crime rate among blacks was increasing faster than their population. Certainly the prevailing prejudices worked against blacks in the court system. A study done in 1849 of the inmate population of the Eastern State Penitentiary and Philadelphia County Prison showed that, from 1829 to 1848, the length of sentence of white prisoners averaged 2 years, 8 months and 2 days; while that of blacks averaged 3 years, 3 months and 14 days. Some 15 percent of white inmates were pardoned before the end of their terms, but only 3 percent of blacks were.
Yet it was a fact universally acknowledged, even among the friends of the race, that the escaped slaves who moved into the southern tier of Pennsylvania counties were notoriously criminal. One report statewide showed the black population ratio at 1:33 and the black crime rate at 1:3. Furthermore, of black criminals, some 66.3 percent had come from slave states. Apologists cited the want of education and work opportunities, as well as the temptations of liquor, all of which certainly contributed to these deplorable statistics.
In some years the black crime rate was four times that of whites. Based on the records of the Eastern State Penitentiary, for the seven years before 1837, blacks committed 36 percent of the criminal acts in Philadelphia, at a time when they represented 9 percent of the city's population. These figures continued at about the same rate over the next ten years and showed only slight improvement up to the Civil War. At least one Southern pro-slavery writer cited Pennsylvania as an example of how black morality deteriorated with freedom and revealed characteristics that made supervision and restraint the ideal situation for the race.
One reason given for barring blacks from voting, under the Pennsylvania constitution of 1837-38, was that the state "will not then be the receptacle of fugitive slaves, or runaway negroes ... as she is now." The Pennsylvania constitutions of 1776 and 1790 had not barred black men from voting, yet few ever did, and none, it seems, in the old southeastern counties where the bulk of them lived. The 1837-8 constitutional rewrite made the reality a law, and formally disenfranchised blacks in Pennsylvania. After 1838, Pennsylvania blacks were officially reduced to a position of semi-citizenship. If they had sufficient income, they paid taxes. But they could not vote.
1. Tax rolls, borough archives, West Chester, Pa., examined in 1998.