top of page
Search

Finding Beneficial Hall



On May 17, 1838, Pennsylvania Hall burned to the ground.


Probably because so much of the funding came from the Quaker community, and because the first convention there was interracial, we have all collectively thought that Pennsylvania Hall was going to be used by primarily white groups for abolitionist causes.



Stephen Smith contemplates building a new hall after Pennsylvania Hall burns


But Pennsylvania Hall was meant for Black Community needs; for schools, for lectures, for economic groups, philanthropic groups, beneficial society meetings, and for abolition group meetings.


When it was gone, the need did not go away.



It's destruction exacerbated meeting space problems in the Black community, as there were thousands of people who were meeting regularly and needed that space. Abolitionist leader, Methodist Minister, and wealthy businessman Stephen Smith put the numbers together (see his letter about this).   


He calculated:

●      15 churches

●      21 day schools

●      17 sabbath schools

●      3 debating societies

●      64 beneficial societies (the 1838 census calculates much more)

●      2 moral reform societies

●      4 temperance societies


Hundreds of groups meeting 2 to 4 times a week, holding more than 3000 meetings a year. Literally, 10 meetings a night.[1][2] To meet this need, the community had 6 buildings that it used repeatedly:


●      Benezet Hall [3]

●      The basement of Mother Bethel AME

●      The basement of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church

●      The basement of Second African Presbyterian Church


So Pennsylvania Hall was supposed to be the place; the spot that could meet this need.  Especially because the Black community often could not get space because hall owners would close their doors to Black groups.[6]


Interracial abolitionist groups needed space too, though their numbers were not nearly as numerous as Black community groups, and they had more access to white-owned properties whose doors would be open to them.


Community leaders must have regrouped because by 1842, 4 years later, Stephen Smith was the owner of two lots on Lombard and 7th, the heart of the Black Metropolis, and he was converting them to a hall.


You may have heard about this hall.  Historians have talked about it for years. Some historians (yours truly included) got Beneficial Hall and Benezet Hall confused. We have now documented Benezet Hall and are confident that it existed at 508 South 7th street.


And here is the story of how we are confident we have found the location of Beneficial Hall.

 


 

Searching for Beneficial Hall 

 

In 1842 Smith was nearly complete with his hall.


He already had a waitlist of renters (see his letter about this). He wrote, “Such was the increasing demand for the hall by a numerous throng of applications, that the subscriber was obliged to refuse making any further arrangement with them, until the building was finished, having already engaged it for the day time, and four evenings in every week.” [7]


But on August 1, 1842, a mob of white men executed a planned arson attack on the hall and burned it down. 


We have outlined the day of the 1842 in our report






In this post, we are focusing on unraveling the mystery of the location of Beneficial Hall.  To date, we do not know of any other source that has conducted a reconciliation of historical records and news reports that have pinpointed its actual location.  But we believe we have found it through the efforts of three public history groups; the 1838 Black Metropolis, the Black Docent Collective, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission.


A few months ago, as we were completing the research on Benezet Hall, Black Docent Collective Secretary Michael Clemmons, who is also a Stephen Smith historian, shared an appearance docket entry that Professor Donna Rilling had found in the archives.



 

It documented a court case where Stephen Smith sued the County of Philadelphia for damages and won.  1838 Black Metropolis Board Member Michelle Flamer is a retired lawyer, and for her, the document told us that there was a case, but didn’t connect that case directly to Beneficial Hall.   It showed that there were properties damaged but didn’t list which ones.


And it’s true - if you look at the document it doesn’t list the location or the name of the building.


Talking this over with Michael Clemmons, he pointed out that Smith had mentioned the hall in his will, which Michael had accessed at Temple’s Blockson collection.  In the will, Smith bequeathed five houses and lots where “my hall once stood” to his wife Harriet.  He says the houses are on “Lombard below Seventh”. And then gives further instruction that after Harriet passes, the buildings and lots should be given to The “Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored Persons”.[8] 




I searched high and low in the Philadelphia Historical Index and deeds for properties that Smith may have owned on Lombard below 7th (between 6th and 7th).


I took a deeper look at the newspaper records and the August 3, 1842 Public Ledger (see Appendix B) provided a number of location clues.[9]





●     The building was five stories; which meant that it wasn’t a typical three story townhome.  So it would have been situated differently on the street. 



●      On the East, there was a home owned by J.Simons.  This is a huge clue because with that we could verify that J.Simons lived on Lombard and potentially find an address.



●      On the west, there was a row of houses on a court.  This now meant that we should look for a court on the maps.



I did find J.Simons on Lombard in the  1841 City Directory, but without the deed information, we still didn’t have definitive proof that Smith owned any buildings on Lombard.


So we reached out to the Philadelphia Historic Commission (PHC) and provided all the clues and the historical significance of the site.   Armed with this information, Heather Hendrickson of the PHC began her research.

 


 

Connecting the Court Case to Smith


In the meantime, Michelle and I finally found news connecting the court record to Smith.


In this letter to the editor in The Liberator, signed by ‘Truth’, a few weeks after the attack, he notes that there was a law passed after Pennsylvania Hall would allow Smith to sue. “The consequence is, that the city must pay for both, according to the new la passed since the burning of Pennsylvania Hall.”




 

This law was introduced the day after Pennsylvania Hall was burned down, on May 18, 1838.[10] (Appreciation to Blackpast.org for making us aware of this law).  The law says that if any property is destroyed from mob violence, the public must compensate those who have lost property.[11]




Finally, this article from the Vermont Religious Observer connected Smith to the case to the hall.[12]


 

 

Location Found

 

Oh happy day when I got the email from Heather Hendrickson of the Philadelphia Historic Commission.


Here’s what she found at The City Archives.

 

  1. In 1841, Stephen Smith acquired two lots on the North side of Lombard Street near the corner of 7th;  lots 61 and 62.  The addresses for these properties are 639 and 641 Lombard Street.



 


 



 

In this lithograph of the mob attack from 1842 we can see that the hall is rectangular with windows on the long side. A church burns beside Beneficial Hall and it is assumed this is Second African Presbyterian.  A Black man is being attacked by a mob.  Note also the ‘railroad‘ sign.  As there was no railroad close to Beneficial Hall, it’s possible this could be a physical representation of the Underground Railroad.





 2. The lot next to 61 and 62 was owned by J. Simons, as indicated in The Ledger.





 

3. The 1860 Hexamer & Locher insurance map shows a court to the west of the lots owned by Smith. This matches The Ledger’s description of a court of homes to the west of Beneficial Hall that were also damaged by the fire.


Lot 61 was situated along the full length of Washington Court, which is how I think that Smith was able to build a larger 5 story building as mentioned in The Public Ledger.  With two lots, he probably fronted the building onto Washington court, rather than to Lombard Street.




 

 

 

4. Later, when Harriet Smith died in 1880, lots and buildings were passed onto the Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored Persons (‘the Home’), an institution also founded by Stephen Smith.  After 15 years of service,, the Home sold the properties to Rosa Berkowitz and in that deed it mentions that the full property comprises 5 buildings and lots.  This matches Smith’s will, where he says there are 5 buildings and lots.




 


 

Rebuilding

 

When Beneficial Hall burned down, Smith must have built new homes on that spot, because these homes show up on the 1860 and 1895 maps.


While we don’t have evidence for how these new buildings were used (yet - if you know anything let us know), we would like to hope that they were used for the community.


This was the center of what we think of as a Black-city-within-a-city that had regional, national, and international impact; a center for both Black excellence and emancipation.  


You can see on the 1838 Black Metropolis map  that Beneficial Hall was one of many institutions on that intersection that included halls, known underground railroad safe houses, schools, offices, churches, and shelters. 


 

 

 

 


Aftermath 

 

Both Stephen Smith and Second African Presbyterian Church won their court cases. [13]


Remarkably, a year after Second African Presbyterian Church went down, a new church was built.[14] 



 

And the Black Metropolis was growing and building anew. Down the street, Lombard Central Presbyterian was going up at 8th and Lombard.  At 7th and Lombard, a new shelter had opened called ‘The Moral Reform Retreat’, a shelter by Black women for Black women. By 1851, a brand new building for the Institute of Colored Youth, a high school for Black youth, opened to a new class of students, and included a public library[15].





We don’t know where Stephen Smith was as his hall was torched. Was he there? In the crowd somewhere?  What must it have been to watch Pennsylvania Hall burn, then to build a brand new hall, and on the eve of its completion, watch it burn down while fire engines on the ground, right in front of it, did nothing? 


We can only imagine a similar smoldering in the heart and an unrequited deep injury that probably never fully healed. 


On his deathbed, Stephen Smith referred to Beneficial Hall as my hall.  30 years later, it was still close; it was still my hall.

 


Sources

 


[1] “Smith’s Beneficial Hall”, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, March 30, 1843

[2] The 1838 PAS Census estimated 18,768 Black residents of Philadelphia, mostly concentrated in the roughly 1 square mile radius surrounding  7th and Lombard, and a large enclave in Northern Liberties.  The 1837 AMRS meeting notes estimate 25,000 people.

[3] "Finding Benezet Hall; the Civil Rights Center You've Never Heard About." https://www.1838blackmetropolis.com. 1838 Black Metropolis, March 10, 2024. https://www.1838blackmetropolis.com/post/finding-benezet-hall-the-civil-rights-center-you-ve-never-heard-about.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Finding Benezet Hall; the Civil Rights Center You've Never Heard About." https://www.1838blackmetropolis.com.  1838 Black Metropolis, April 21, 2024. https://www.1838blackmetropolis.com/post/unearthing-untold-stories-the-forgotten-exhibition-of-black-inventors-and-artisans-from-1851.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Smith’s Beneficial Hall”, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, March 30, 1843

[8] 1873. Will of Stephen Smith. Philadelphia. Courtesy Blockson Collection, Temple University, Catalog Number E185.97.S55 W5 1873.

[9] The Scene of the Riot”, The Public Ledger, August 3, 1842

[10] “The Pennsylvania Hall Burnt”, The Public Ledger (Philadelphia), May 18, 1838

[11] Laws of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. United States: n.p., 1841. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Laws_of_the_General_Assembly_of_the_Comm/FihOAQAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA418&printsec=frontcover&dq=riot

[12] “Indemnification - Riots - Burnt Property”, Vermont Religious Observer

[13] “Indemnification - Riots - Burnt Property”, Vermont Religious Observer, March 14, 1843

[14] Finding Second African Presbyterian Church - A Story of Erasure, Minimization and a Needed Rewrite." 1838 Black Metropolis. August 19, 2023. https://www.1838blackmetropolis.com/post/finding-second-african-presbyterian-church-a-story-of-erasure-minimization-and-a-needed-re-write.

[15] See page 115 Conyers, Charline Fay Howard. 1960. “A History of the Cheyney State Teachers College, 1837-1951”. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

[16]  “Smith’s Beneficial Hall”, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, March 30, 1843


90 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page