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Finding Benezet Hall; the Civil Rights Center You've Never Heard About

Updated: Mar 22

Many of us are familiar with important Civil Rights sites from the 1960s, like the

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church where the Montgomery bus boycott was organized. These sites become revered because the meetings they held had an impact on national history.


Did you know that there is a site here in Philadelphia that was owned and used by the Black community for civil rights and community organizing from the 1830s??


That's 120 years before the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s.


And it was a site of activity for almost 100 years. 👀





As Black people started to organize to form a sense of national identity in the 1830s, they did that at this site.


When churches, some of which are still going today, needed rooms to start before they had buildings, they did that at this site.


We often wonder how thousands of freedom seekers were able to come and land and start lives in Philadelphia from 1830-1860. Behind the scenes, economic aid and social groups were organizing - and they did that at this site.


The Banneker Institute was able to get up and running quickly - because they rented a room at this site.


When Black civil rights group the Social, Civil and Statistical Association launched in 1861, this site was its home. Many of the trolley car desegregation organizing meetings were held here.


But we don't hear about this. There's not even a historical marker.


We Black Philadelphians have been missing out on over 100 years of the organizing history of our ancestors. It's time to recognize and reclaim that heritage.


The Details


Let's take a moment to imagine it back then. It wasn't that different except that there were buildings across the street, where Starr garden is now.



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SOOO much happened here on this block.


In the 1830s, colored conventions were held here and churches got started here. Union Baptist, which is Marian Anderson's home church, got started here. Many other churches continued to use the space for additional meeting space. In 1838, when Pennsylvania Hall burned, this site took up the mantle and became that envisioned community organizing space that had been lost. Starting In the 1840s, beneficial societies bought a house here for offices. In the 1850s, the Banneker institute first met here. And anti-slavery meetings where held here too. Black Philanthropy was located here - if you needed money to go to the dentist, or to pay your rent, you could talk to groups located here for help. In the 1860s, civil rights groups met and organized here. In the 1870s it was used for all of these things.


Here are just some of the many ways Benezet Hall served the community.


Politically



From the minutes of the 3rd Annual Colored Convention, courtesy Google books




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Later it was where the Social, Civil and Statistical Association met to plan Civil Rights actions, like this meeting from 1861.


Notes from an 1861 meeting of the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania



It was also considered to be the continuation of the spirit of Pennsylvania Hall, after Pennsylvania Hall was destroyed by white racist mobs in 1838.


Anti-Slavery Reporter, 9/1/1842, Courtesy Gale Primary Sources

In that spirit, it held many abolition meetings. Like this one from 1833.


The Liberator, 12/28/1833, courtesy Accessible Archives


Educationally


The Banneker Institute held it's first meetings at Benezet hall before its move to 11th street.


1857 Letter from A. W. campbell to william H. johnson, see Sources below


Socially


There are years of notices in Black newspapers about community meetings at Benezet Hall.





From a talk by Felix E. Gardenhire, Worshipful Grand Historian, courtesy Black Docent Collective



Religiously


Union Baptist used Benezet Hall as their first space before they got their own church buildings in the 1830s. Other churches, like First African Presbyterian, routinely rented rooms in the hall for church activities.


9/10/1960 Philadephia Tribune, see sources below




Economically


It was the home of the Benezet Philanthropic Association and the Benezet Joint Stock Association. The organizations gave loans, paid for medical services and provided rental assistance to the community.


1856 meeting notes from the minute book of the Benezet Joint Stock Association, courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania



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Attacked Because of Its Importance


And Benezet Hall was once burned down to the ground.


Because of it's importance to the Black anti-slavery organizing, it was a target of white racist mob violence - twice.


On the night of August 15, 1834, after 3 days of attacks, a mob of white men armed with cudgels and bats threatened to burn down the hall. Hiram lodge members were inside the lodge armed with weapons. In this tense showdown, where both the posse commitatus (equal to state national guard in our day), and the municipal authorities were in the crowd, the diffusing factor was Thomas Shipley, a white Quaker abolitionist, who skillfully helped authorities to diffuse the mob.


Read all about that and see the sources in our history of the 1834 mob attack.


In the August 1, 1842 mob attack, white men again attacked Benezet Hall. This time, there was a hint at some pre-planning. One newspaper reports that the workers on the hall (they were adding a fourth story), were told in the morning to take all their tools.


Anti-Slavery Reporter, 9/1/1842, Courtesy Gale Primary Sources

That mob attack was sadistic and violent, attacking children and teenagers who marched in an Emancipation Day parade earlier that day. With that violence unchecked by municipal authorities, this mob burned Benezet Hall to the ground.


That same mob then went around the corner and set 2nd African Presbyterian church on fire. Read that story here.



It's 'Benezet' - not 'Beneficial'


Newspapers incorrectly reported the name of the hall as 'Beneficial'.' That got into the historic records - that 'Beneficial Hall' not 'Benezet Hall' had been burned down. And that misnomer has persisted to this day. This mistake has prevented scholars and researchers (like yours truly) from finding Benezet Hall because we were searching for the wrong name.


Anti-Slavery Reporter, 9/1/1842, Courtesy Gale Primary Sources


Rebuilt Stronger


Another misunderstanding was that Benezet Hall never rose again.


Stephen Smith, underground railroad coordinator and organizer, wealthy entrepreneur and AME preacher, was said to be the owner of the hall, though his name is not on the 1830 deed. See the deed records here.


There was an insurance survey placed on the hall in 1835, probably in response to the 1834 attack.


Note that on the survey, that there is some indication of a fire 'about 25 July' but doesn't give the year.



Insurance Survey No 3265, Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company Records, Historical Society of Pennsylvania


Insurance funds may have been used.


Smith sued the County of Philadelphia and won! This proved that municipal authorities were guilty of not protecting Benezet Hall.


He was awarded $4724. That's $198,000 in today's dollars. We have the dynamic duo of Professor Donna Rilling and Stephen Smith historian Michael Clemmons to thank for unearthing this court record 🙏🏽.


1843 court record - Stephen Smith vs the County of Philadelphia



And they rebuilt.


On the same spot. 💪🏾


It must have been rebuilt between 1842 (the burning) and 1854 because by then, it was being sold for $1 from the Benezet Philanthropic Association to the Benezet Joint Stock Association. Owned buildings are often passed down legally to close associates by only charging $1 so that there is legal transference of ownership.


In this case, the Benezet Philanthropic Association sold the hall for $1 to the Benezet Joint Stock Association. The Benezet Joint Stock Association became the caretakers of the hall. Used the hall as an asset, the Benezet Joint Stock Association loaned money to members and owned additional properties on Middle alley Elizabeth street that they rented out.


Benezet Hall continued to be used for all the functions mentioned above until they sold it in 1884.




Notes from the Benezet Joint Stock Association Minutes, courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania



The Municipal Center of the Black Metropolis


In the research for Benezet Hall we also discovered that there were actually two houses on south 7th between Lombard and South, that were used for municipal purposes. The first was 508 South 7th - Benezet Hall.








Insurance survey for 512 South 7th Street, courtesy the Philadelphia Contributionship


This means that south 7th between Lombard and South was like a municipal center for the Black metropolis. Social groups, political groups, religious groups, economic groups - all coming together in one important block.


We imagine it as a busy place, full of people going to and fro, stopping to chat up the most recent church politics, or plan civil rights actions together, or discuss ways to provide economic support to one another.




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When we say the 1838 Black Metropolis is a city-within-a-city its because we clearly see the Black community's expertly organized self-governance activities during a time when white municipal authorities could not be trusted to protect Black life and property.



Timeline


September, 1830 - A three story brick building on 7th street between Bradford Alley and Lombard (no street number at this time) purchased by the Benezet Philanthropic Society.


August, 1834 - Mob attack on Benezet Hall. No damage to the property.


August, 1842 - Mob attack on Benezet Hall. Burned and destroyed.


November, 1842 - Stephen Smith file suit against the county of Philadelphia for negligence in protecting Benezet Hall. Note that Second African Presbyterian, which was also burned down also filed suit and won. See that story here.


March, 1843 - Stephen Smith wins his court case and is awarded approximately $198,000 in today's money.


May, 1848 - Insurance survey taken on 512 South 7th Street by 4 beneficial societies and a Masonic lodge for joint office space.


Sometime before 1854 -Benezet Hall rebuilt.


November, 1854 - Benezet Hall sold to the trustees of the Benezet Philanthropic Association.


1884 - Benezet Hall is sold.


Preservation


The good news is that someone peeped that Benezet Hall needed protection in 1968 when it was listed Philadelphia's Register of Historic Places in 1968. There is still a bit more research and work to do validate how much the original buildings have been updated and to bring more of this knowledge to the public. Stay tuned as we will be posting more of those activities here on our site.


Sources



Campbell, A. W. (1857). Letter from A. W. campbell to william H. johnson. 36-37. Nov 14, 1857.


Daniels, W. Union baptist church to mark 128th anniversary. Philadelphia Tribune (. 10 Sep 1960: 9.).



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