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Exploring the Legacy of the Appo Family: A Century of Black Metropolis Excellence

Updated: Apr 15


SPECIAL THANKS is due to Chayanne Marcano—Consulting Researcher



Today I’d like to tell you a story of an incredible family. I first started looking at this family because of William Appo. William was born and raised in The Black Metropolis and was a musician in Frank Johnson’s band.


That in itself is noteworthy–Johnson ensured his musicians were of the highest quality.




ai image of Ann Appo playing the Organ in St. Thomas church in 1826



But as I started to dig into his life, generations of Black excellence unfolded before me. I want to share with you some of the incredible achievements of the Appo family.


The Appo Family Hall of Fame


Late 1790s-1800s

  • Jean and Anne emigrate from Haiti and run a candy company on 6th Between Pine and Spruce.

1810s

  • Daughter Helen marries the soon to be world famous musician Francis Johnson.

1820s

  • Daughter Ann becomes one of the first organists at St. Thomas.

  • Daughter Helen starts a successful seamstress business.

1830s

  • Son William becomes a musician and composer and goes to Europe with Frank Johnsons' Band. He eventually starts his own music school in New York.


1860s-1900

  • Granddaughter Helen Appo Cook serves as a community leader for Black women and suffrage groups. She becomes a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women.

1890s

  • Great grandchildren Charles Chaveau Cook and Jane Eleanor Datcher are the first Black graduates of Cornell’s class of 1890.

1930s

  • Great great grandaughter Enid Appo Cook becomes the first Black student to graduate from Bryn Mawr College. She earned her Ph.D. in Bacteriology from the University of Chicago in 1937.









Haitian Emigrees Created Their Own Enclave on Society Hill in the Early 1800s


The story begins when Jean (1756- 1818) and Anne Baptiste (1782-1825) migrated to Philadelphia around the time of Haitian Independence in the late 1790s. During this time, many White colonist enslavers from Haiti moved to Philadelphia and brought enslaved people with them. Some free people of mixed-race ancestry also emigrated. But the laws of Pennsylvania and the proximity to a large free Black population meant that most of those enslaved people gained freedom by the early 1800s.


The influx of Haitians had a huge impact on the Black community, which at this time was about 4000 people. Approximately 800 Haitians joined the community which represents about a 20% growth in the span of a decade. In a relatively short period, the Black community became a transatlantic community, representing more of the African diaspora. And this impact was felt in all aspects of community life.


There were so many Haitian families in the 1820s in Philadelphia, that 4th and Spruce became known as the ‘Colored French Colony’.



Bernice Dutrieuille Shelton papers, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania


Jean and Anne were confectioners (candy makers) in Cap-Français, and in Philadelphia “Ann’s recipe for ice cream proved popular and profitable" (Johnson 45, 2020).


They joined the first generation of St. Thomas Church families and became close with Black Protestants from New York and Philadelphia.


They were able to purchase their home from Joseph Dutrieuille, another Haitian Emigree, on 6th between Spruce and Pine. This is an early example of Ujima—Black dollars and land staying within the community—in 1816!



Deed between Jospeph Dutrieuille and John Appo. Courtesy Philadelphia Land Records, Book 9, MR, Page 51

And they rented it out for additional income.



Unfortunately, the original building was destroyed by the City of Philadelphia for the Society Hill Redevelopment plan in 1960.



From Francesca Ammon (2018), page 317. "Acquisition, Clearance, and Rehabilitation Plan for Washington Square East, Unit 2. Source: Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia, “Acquisition, Clearance, and Rehabilitation Plan, Washington Square East, Unit 2,” in Washington Square Redevelopment Area, Washington Square East Urban Renewal Area No. 2: Redevelopment Proposal, Urban Renewal Plan, Relocation Plan, May 19, 1960, Box 5, Folder 10, Housing Association of Delaware Valley Records, Series 16, SCRC 1, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."


Jean and Anne anglicized their names and changed their surname. In this new city they were now known as St. John and Ann Appo. They had 4 children: Helen (also known as Ellen), in 1801, William in 1808, Ann in 1810*, and Joseph in 1811* (Winch 118) .


*Ann and Joseph's birth years have not been confirmed with primary sources.


The spatial stability and relative safety of The Black Metropolis allowed them strong foundations to start a family that would go on to impact many different sectors of American life, from music to women’s rights, and to the medical field. They are a family of firsts in this country, and they too deserve a narrative on their impact!



James Forten Steps in as Foster Parent and Helen Assumes Family Leadership


The Appo family faced an early challenge when St. John died in December 1818.


There could have been a death of a child in 1818 as well. This record, signed by Anthony Benezet, records a two-month-old baby who died of cholera whose name was John Appo and whose father was John Appo. The baby was buried at St. Thomas.



Death record of baby John Appo, died in 1818, buried at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Signed by Anthony Benezet.


With the families' hearts already broken, the pain would be compounded when John died of tuberculosis nearly six months after.


A little over six years later, mother Ann died in 1825.


Only Helen, aged 24 in 1825, was an adult when her mother died. John's will stated that should the children lose both parents, James Forten and Richard Howell, a Black oyster seller, were to look after the Appo family. The youngest child, Ann, lived with the Forten family for a time after her mother's death (Winch, 118).


Index of St. John Appo’s Will: drafted Dec. 3rd 1818, ratified on Dec. 31, 1818; Courtesy of USGenWeb Archives.


Three of the Children were Musicians and One Married the Most Famous Musician in Philadelphia, Frank Johnson



Ann

Ann Appo (1809/10-December 21, 1828) is known as the first Black woman organist on record. As a fairly wealthy congregation, St. Thomas Church was one of the first Black churches in the country to purchase an organ. This meant that Ann was playing in front of public audiences as a teenager. She died at the age of 18 in December of 1828 of tuberculosis (then called pulmonary consumption).




Death record of Ann Appo (name mispelled as Appa), Philadelphia Death Certificate Index, Courtesy Family Search.org https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JD1X-Y23






Joseph

Joseph (1805/11-December 26, 1829) also has little surviving information on his life. We do know from some archival data that he played violin in shows at local theaters and was a frequent musician in the sacred music concerts in Philadelphia.


On October 27, 1827 he married Eliza Ann LeCount (December 20, 1809-March 31, 1842)—no relation to the Philadelphia teacher, Caroline LeCount. At some point he made his way back to Haiti as he his death certificate is in Haiti.


They had one child, Junius Brutus Appo (August 9, 1828-August 14, 1906). Junius spent part of his early childhood in Philadelphia with Frank and Helen Johnson.


Interesting Story: 7 year old Junius Went Missing for a While in 1835


One day in August 1835, 7-year-old Junius didn't return home. He was carrying a "band box with a painted muslin dress in it".


That in itself is an interesting physical object metaphor for Helen and Frank; a Band box (from Frank) with a dress (from Helen) in it!


Junius must have been missing for at least a few days as it would have taken some time to take the ad out.


This was a particularly volatile time as mobs of White men were known to attack The Black Metropolis indiscriminately in the summer of 1834 and 1835. We can only imagine the fear and stress of the Appo family during this time.



The Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 August 1835; Courtesy Newspapers.com

While we don't know when Junius was found, we do know that he was found because of his full biography here. Junius wound up moving out to California where he worked as a porter on steamships. He married, had children and finished out his days in Oakland, California.




William

William Appo (1808-1880) was no doubt a product of St. Thomas Church’s musical family. Some writers suggest he was a part of Johnson’s early band that welcomed General Marquis de Lafayette through the parade and grand ball in 1824. William would have been 16, and judging from contemporary accounts of his musicality later in life, this early showing of talent is quite likely.


William was a gifted singer, constantly performing lead solos in sacred music concerts. He was a French horn player with great piano skills. He likely played a string instrument too as the Johnson band members needed to be multi-instrumentalists. I have not found documents that indicate which string instrument he played.


William was one of the four band members Frank Johnson took with him on his trip to Europe in 1837.


Not only a performer, William was also a composer. Though it is unclear how much he wrote, he has one surviving composition today, a political piece written in 1844: John Tyler’s Lamentation.



John Tyler's Lamentation, Words by T. C. Stephens, Music by William Appo (1844) (youtube.com)



Daniel Alexander Payne, a Bishop and major shaper of African Methodist Episcopal Church, held Appo in the highest musical regard, referring to him as “the most learned musician of the race” (Payne 1888, 236). He notes William as the conductor of a sacred concert at Mother Bethel in 1848. After this concert, church leaders were convinced of the merit of instrumental music in the church.


Not too long after his return from England, William would move his family to New York City and spend a brief time in Burlington, New Jersey before settling in North Elba, New York.


Appo was a teacher in New York City’s Black public schools. He taught at the preserved former colored school #4, now a city landmark at 128 W 17th St. He was a respected professor of music and even taught French. He had five children: Helen, Catharine, William Jr., St. John, and Garnet.




1939-40 Picture of Colored School # 4, now a New York City landmark; Courtesy of New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.



Helen


When Helen was 18 years old, she married Francis Johnson, then 26 years old, on March 8th, 1819. This was a short period after her father's death. When her mother died in 1825, Helen became the head of the Appo family. Many generations of Appo women were named after her.


Helen and Frank settled in the family home on 6th between Pine and Spruce, 119 S. 6th St (no longer standing) before moving to 154 Pine, where they would live for most of the 1820s-1830s.


As a seamstress she was able to independently make a living side by side with Johnson’s extra successful music career.



A newspaper ad for a tailoring business focusing on fashionable women’s clothing from Freedman’s Journal May 18, 1827. This is likely Helen’s early business with John B. Sammons, a local tailor. Courtesy Accessible Archives

Her work as a milliner found decent success in Philadelphia and New York evidently, in the 1820s with a business partner, and again from the 1830s-1842 when she worked with her sister-in-law Eliza Ann Appo.


Helen was not only skilled in her own field, but certainly aided the management of the band’s activities with Johnson. I presume this based on her documented efforts in ensuring an efficient process of the dividing of the Johnson estate.


Resolutions of the band after Johnson’s death, Public Ledger April 9th, 1844. Courtesy of Newspapers.com

Her husband was a traveling musician and would often spend extended periods away, leaving her in charge of business and financial matters at home. In these pictures, presumably in Helen's handwriting, we see music and instruments worth about $3500 in today's dollars.




Estate Disposition of Francis Johnson, written by Helen Johnson. Scanned from Arthur LaBrew’s 1994 biography on Francis Johnson.



We Found Out That Helen Johnson Lived Her Last Years in Washington, DC


Helen's life has yet to be completely documented and while we know a lot about her early life, it was challenging to find information about her later years.


From 1844-1852, Helen Johnson was listed in McElroy’s city directory as a “milliner” at 195 S. 7th street in Philadelphia. This location is advertised as Ann Turner's boarding house in Frederick Douglass's newspaper (11/9/1855)


After 1870 we could not find her.


But then a bank record from 1871 from William Appo provided a key clue. He listed all the living members of his family and Helen appeared in Washington, DC.






Knowing that Helen was in Washington D.C. in 1871 changed how I looked for her in the digital databases. I now had an extended set of census records and city directories to search from.


She likely lived with one of her nieces, Helen Appo Cook or Catharine Johnson, née Appo.


Searching in DC now meant that I could find her death certificate, which had been indexed on Familysearch.org and gives the year of her death: 1875. A small note, but big in this narrative as her death had been shrouded in mystery before this index—only Arthur LaBrew has indicated her death as 1875, however, he did not provide the document.


Helen’s impact on her family is clear. As the eldest child, she held a responsibility of legacy, not only to Francis Johnson, but for the Appo family name. She nurtured and cared for her siblings and their children, though she likely did not have any of her own.


Silhouette of Francis Johnson and Helen Johnson by Auguste Edouart; Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.





DESCENDENTS


Helen Appo Cook Leads the National Association of Colored Women


William Appo’s daughter, Helen Appo Cook (July 21, 1837-November 20, 1913), was born in Philadelphia, shortly before her father made his way to England with Frank Johnson’s band. Perhaps his newborn child gave him a strong reason to come back early from the European trip (LaBrew 1994, 241).


Eventually Helen Appo would move to Washington D.C., where she married the wealthiest African American in that city, John Francis Cook Jr., an educator and politician.



Drawing of Helen Appo Cook in The Colored American, 4 June 1898, courtesy of Newspapers.com


She then went on to co-found the National Association of Colored Women with Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. She became President of the Women’s League in Washington D.C.



Appo family tree. Courtesy of familysearch.org



Charles Chaveau Cook and Jane Eleanor Datcher are the First Black Graduates of Cornell in 1890


Helen Appo Cook’s son, Charles Chaveau Cook (1869-1910), would become the one of the first three African American students to graduate from Cornell University in 1890 (Johnson, 53). Charles’ cousin, Jane Eleanor Datcher, was the one of the other African American students in that graduating class, becoming the first African American woman to graduate from Cornell. Charles would become a professor at Howard University (Obituary in the Evening Star, 24 August 1910).



These two graduates are likely Charles Chaveau Cook and Jane Eleanor Datcher, as they are the only portraits of colored people in Cornell’s class of 1890. Courtesy of Cornell Digital Collection.



Enid Appo Cook de Rodaniche is the First Black Graduate of Bryn Mawr


One of Charles’ children, Enid Appo Cook (25 October 1907 – 16 July 1987), would have a successful medical career. After spending a year at Howard University, she became the first Black student to graduate from Bryn Mawr College and then earned her Ph.D. in Bacteriology from the University of Chicago in 1937.



Enid Cook would marry Arcadio Rodaniche and move to Panama. There, she would serve as the chief of a Public Health Laboratory and become a founding member of the school of medicine at the University of Panama.



Concluding Thoughts


There's plenty to learn from this story. Jean and Anne survived the Haitian Revolution, and then created a successful candy business. Through their church family they developed deep and supportive relationships that continued to lift up and support their children after they were gone.


Their children loved music and helped create the occupational and creative foundation for Black musicians early in the 1800s.


Generations of Appos could have faded into the background due to their relative comfort and wealth. Instead, they continued to break race barriers in education and fight for the rights and freedoms of Black women.




SOURCES:

Ammon, Francesca Russello. “Picturing Preservation and Renewal: Photographs as Planning Knowledge in Society Hill, Philadelphia.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 42, no. 3 (December 5, 2018): 314–30.


Brown, Stacy M. “Suffragist Helen Appo Cook: Wealthy Champion of the Poor.” The Washington Informer, December 21, 2021.


Davies, John. “Saint-Dominguan Refugees of African Descent and the Forging of Ethnic Identity in Early National Philadelphia.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 134, no. 2 (2010): 109-126.


Hurley, Marianne. Designation Report for (Former) Colored School No. 4. Edited by Kate Lemos McHale. New York City, NY: NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2023.


Johnson, Ronald Angelo. “Africans and Immigrants: Haitian Contributions to the African Protestant Movement in Early America.” Revue française d’études américaines N° 164, no. 3 (September 14, 2020): 38-57.


Jones, Charles K. Francis Johnson (1792-1844): Chronicle of a Black Musician in Early Nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2006.


LaBrew, Arthur R. Captain Francis Johnson (1792-1844): Great American Black Bandsman: Life and Works. Detroit, MI: Michigan Music Research Center, 1994.


Payne, Daniel Alexander. Recollections of Seventy Years. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1968.


Winch, Julie. A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.



DIGITAL ARCHIVES

Cornell Digital Collection

Internet Archive

Library of Congress Newspapers Metropolitan Museum of Art Digital Collection


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