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Black Metropolis 101 and Glossary

Updated: May 28, 2023

What are they talking about?

We know that our co-founder Michiko tends to get a little excited on the tours and starts throwing out rapid dates, times, organizations, people in quick succession. She's working on it.

But we wanted to offer this to you as a secret Michiko decoder ring. So here we go:

Black Metropolis 101

What do you mean by 1838 Black Metropolis?

The 1838 Black Metropolis is a name that we gave the free Black community of Philadelphia during the period from about 1835 to 1845. We realized that we hadn't been taught how big the community was. We discovered how big the community was when we came across a census taken at that time and a listing of Black businesses of the community from 1838. When we started researching these documents we started realizing that the was a ton of information that was incredible....but also minimized and hidden, almost to the point of erasure. So we started telling people about it and that is what we call the 1838 Black Metropolis movement. That movement is our encouragement to others to restore, reclaim and rewrite their own histories.



The destruction of slave labor. Also the movement to destroy the slave labor system.


The loss of the right to vote. In particular the movement of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Reform Convention to put the word 'white' in the definition of who could vote. This effectively made 40,000 free Black people disenfranchised.


Freedom from slavery. Also the efforts to free people from slavery.

Freedom Seeker

A person who has escaped slavery.

James Forten

One of the key leaders of the 1838 Black Metropolis. He was a business leader and his family became leaders in the Abolition movement.

Mother Bethel

A church on 6th and Lombard street in Philadelphia. It is the spiritual, political and physical center of the 1838 Black Metropolis.

PAS Census

A census of the 1838 free Black population of Philadelphia taking by Black community and funded by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS)

Register of Trades

A listing of all the Black businesses and advanced tradespeople in 1838 Philadelphia.

Richard Allen

The spiritual and moral leader of the free Black community. He established the first Black denomination in the world - the African Methodist Episcopal church.

Spatial Stability

This is a term that indicates that a physical city space is safe space for free Black people to build their lives. This term was coined by Historian and Haverford Professor Emeritus Emma Jones Lapsansky Werner.

The First Vigilant Committee

A committee of free Black people who organized immediate housing, food, shelter, medical and transportation support for freedom seekers. This first Vigilant committee had Robert Purvis as it's president and ran from 1837-1842.

The Mob Attacks

The attacks on the free Black community by white mobs starting in 1834 and continuing through 1843. These are typically called 'race riots'. But we don't adopt that terminology because a riot implies a chaotic start by two equally aggressive groups. In this case, the mobs intentionally came into peaceful Black communities and killed people and destroyed property.

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society

A group of mostly white Quakers who supported the free Black community with funding for education and with political and legal support.

The Second Vigilant Committee

A committee of free Black people who organized immediate housing, food, shelter, medical and transportation support for freedom seekers. This second Vigilant committee had William Still as it's president and ran from 1852-1860

The Underground Railroad

The system of transportation and support for freedom seekers to make their way north. This included people along the route north and the organization of immediate support for freedom seekers when they arrived in a sanctuary city. While some parts of the system did employ small underground tracks and some above ground rail routes, the term 'railroad' is also meant as a metaphor to indicate all the various ways people reached north, through safe houses when on foot, wagons, and boats. 'Conductors' were people who ran a site where people could seek shelter on the way North.

This is not the 7th ward

Ever since W.E.B DuBois wrote The Philadelphia Negro, the 7th Ward has become code language for Black. What that has encouraged is a thought process that all Black people in Philadelphia were all in the 7th ward, all the time.

It was a very long 19th century.

From about 1820 -1842, the wards had names, not numbers.

For example, here's an 1840 Map. Look at the big blocks of color. Those indicate independent municipalities; Penn, Spring Garden, Northern Liberties, Kensington, City, Moyamensing and Southwark.

Philadelphia consolidated all these municipalities into one big city in 1854. This event is called, simply, The Consolidation. There was no 7th ward prior to this.

Map Courtesy Philly Geo History

The City section was divided into wards. I've indicated the Black population percentage from the 1850 census on some of little boxes on the map.

Couple things to note: By 1850, the "riots" (aka white mob attacks) had put pressure on Black people living in Pine, New Market and Lombard wards. People were scared. And some homes were burned down. This translated into a loss of wealth and stability that was reflected by a move of many Black people into Moyamensing, the area of the city with the cheapest rents.

People often say that the Black population was only 12% of Philadelphia's total population. Even so we see that the Black population in Pine and New Market wards were much higher than 12%. Given the exodus of Black people out of these wards and into Spruce ward (which eventually became the 7th Ward), we know that Pine, New Market, Lombard and Locust ward percentages in 1838 were actually higher than you see here.

Du Bois was trying to tell us this with this great visualization from The Philadelphia Negro. The rate of increase of the Black Population was about 10% a year until the mob attacks, when it slowed to 4.5%. But it did not stop. And it picked up again. This is still remarkable considering the normal rate of population growth is about 1.1% a year. That 4-10% wasn't just a lot of new babies. It was freedom seekers.

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