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Finding Phebe Lewis and The White Scorpions in The Daughters of Africa


While exploring the Daughters of Africa dues book, I found the a title of a Beneficial Society that we cannot find records of: The African Female Benevolent White Scorpion Society.


This lengthy name raised many questions for me - what was their purpose? When were they founded and did they ever dissolve?


What was more interesting to me was the woman listed as the Vice President of this organization - Phebe Lewis.

Phebe Lewis (ai-imaging)

The page she was mentioned on described her as having passed in December of 1822, as well as listing her as the first president of Daughters of Africa. But who was she? And why the White Scorpions?



Excerpt from the Daughters of African Order Book, Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

A quick Google search brought me no information about her or the White Scorpions, nor did a deep dive into the databases available to me.


I couldn’t remember seeing her name in the minutes' book of Daughters - which was not necessarily surprising given that the minutes start in June of 1822 and she passed in December of that year.


Michiko, however, was able to find some information about Phebe’s death.



We learned that she was buried in Bethel Burying Ground - a location which we now know as Weccacoe Park.





We know from the Find a Grave website that she died of heart disease so maybe, when the minutes for Daughters of Africa began to be taken, she was ill and unable to attend meetings or contribute to the society.


This led me to the thought that funds may have been allocated to her to help her as she was ill, just as they were to other members of the society.


I revisited the dues book to find out.


The dues book begins in 1821 and just as I hoped, I spotted “Phebe Lewis, President” in multiple entries during December of 1821 and early 1822 until May, where we only see Elizabeth Matthews, the society’s first secretary, signing off.


"Phebe Lewis, President" read at the end of the entry from September 28 1822

We see her name make a reappearance on June 28th, 1822, shortened to “P Lewis, Pres”. From June to July, her name appears next to Matthews but after, the keeping of the book becomes more organized and neither woman signs off.


After September 1822, the dues are kept track of in a column-like fashion, Lewis’ name is nowhere to be found. Knowing that she passed from heart disease on December 4th, 1822, I wonder if she fell sick during September or before.



April 25 1822 shows "P Lewis" but May 14 1822 on shows Elizabeth Matthews signing off

As, I said before, I assumed Daughters would have allocated funds to her while she was sick, and while there is no evidence of that, the dues book tells of the society paying for her funeral.


This is just another example of how interwoven the Daughters of Africa was with societal practices and the lengths it would go to support its members.


"Eighteen dollars [sic] to pay the expense of Phebe Lewis funeral"

The minute's book begins in June of 1822, and I noticed that her name did not appear in the order book for a brief period of time from May to late June.


I imagine this may have been because she became ill during May, and for the period until her death, Elizabeth Matthews simply signed off for her because they had not yet chosen a new president.


While this may be the backstory of events leading up to Lewis’ passing, this still does not tell me anything about the White Scorpions. Why was she in leadership positions in two Black female societies? Were the White Scorpions a branch of Daughters? Did they play a completely different role than Daughters in the Black Metropolis?


I initially questioned why the White Scorpions did not have similar documentation to the Daughters, imagining that they could have been a secret society of some sort or just less established.


Maybe they were a new project of Lewis’ that she did not have the chance to expand on because of her falling ill. I also wonder what the significance of “White Scorpions” was to Lewis for this to be included in the title.


White Scorpions hold a variety of symbolic meanings including peace, and hope, as well as a symbol of caution against impending danger. Because of her burial location, Lewis was likely a member of Mother Bethel AME Church, so the white scorpion could’ve also held a religious meaning - a warning from God in some way.


However, these are all questions left unanswered for now. All we know is that Phebe Lewis was a former leader of the Black Metropolis and her body, along with 5,000 other Black Philadelphians, lay almost forgotten underneath a children's playground.


Bethel Burying Ground in 1840 - (AI imagining)

In recent years, an effort by the Bethel Burying Ground Project has been made to honor those who were laid to rest in this repurposed cemetary. Terry Buckalew, who first discovered the ruins, maintains an archive of findings at and about the burial site. He first brought this site to the attention of the city over a decade ago and since then the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee wanted to faciliate a memorial at the park to shed light on the orginial purpose of the land and bring justice to the bodies that were built over.


In 2021 Karyn Oliver was chosen to create a memorial in honor of those laid to rest here. It is a simple and respectful design meant to pull attention to Black accomplishments in Philadelphia as well as acknowledge the identity of this space as a gravesite. She calls the project 'Her Luxuriant Soil'.


This is seen through the cemetary style gates leading to the memorial, with "Bethal Buring Ground" in the archway. More about the design can be read here.



Visualization of the planned entranceway to the Bethel Burying Ground, courtesy creativephl.org

 

Artist Karyn Oliver speaks at the ceremony to begin the Her Luxuriant Soil project November 5, 2023.





Phebe Lewis and the White Scorpions opened my eyes to so much about the Black Metropolis as a whole. She led me down a rabbit hole to Black devlopment in the 1800s, how that progression was covered up in the 1900s, and rediscovered and memorialized in the present day.


Phebe Lewis may have passed, but her influence lives on past the Daughters of Africa and the White Scorpions. Karyn Oliver remembers her and thousands others with her artistic vision. I can only hope that my endevours keep her name and story alive for generations to come.















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