top of page

In 1838, a bustling Black city was steps away from Independence Hall

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

When we collectively think of colonial and early 1800s Philadelphia, we all usually think up something that looks like this...

From UPENN Archives;prevRouteTS=1691867522008

But 1838 Philly was wayyyyy Blacker than this.

As we've been digging into the archives here at 1838 Black Metropolis, we are finding more and more sources the fully describe the lives of Black people back then and what's emerging is a powerful, centralized landscape popping with Black infrastructure.

Digging into One Block Reveals the Metropolis

Let's start with just a few houses in what's called 'Society Hill'. This area is just South of the main tourist area in Philly. This is a predominately white affluent area today. Let's zoom into one block and as we do, pay attention to how Mother Bethel AME Church dominates the landscape.

Now that we have an idea of the block, let's talk about a few people who lived there.

(BTW I've described below how we have come to these conclusions for those who want to verify sources.)

Notable Black Historical Figures on this Section of Pine

Amelia Shad

Amelia Shad was a free Black woman from Delaware who came to Philadelphia and opened up a Boarding house, what we would call a B&B, at 178 Pine, which is now 610 Pine. She advertised for delegates to the Colored Conventions to stay at the house.

Add for Amelia Shad's Boarding house. The Liberator, 23 May, 1835. From Gale. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. ©2008 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc.

Note how she is pointing out how her house has easy access to 'Little Pine'. That's because Little Pine, now called Addison (and in the map below, it was called 'Minster'), was RICH in Black Life. In fact, if we look at this map from 20 years later (these buildings were there in 1835), we can see how her location led right into the center of it all.

In this visual, the block of homes we're looking at is circled and the 'Black Hotel' is Amelia Shads. You can walk from the back of her boarding house on to a street with 3 Black churches and 4 others in close proximity. The Black school on that block has 500 students attending daily.

The 1830 Colored Convention happened at Mother Bethel AME and the 1833 Colored Convention happened at Benezet Hall, on 7th between Lombard and South.

Note: On this map, any building that has a 'Col.' abbreviation or the word 'Colored' in the name is a Black institution. In the pre-civil war years (1800-1860), the Free Black population was referred to as 'Colored'.

1858 Hexamer & Locher map, courtesy

Literally everything was here. A Black Print shop - the AME Book concern, and even a world renowned Black Musician - Frank Johnson, who lived on Pine between 5th and 6th.

It must have really felt like you were in an important capital of the Black Atlantic world in 1838, surrounded by all of this complicated life; multiple churches, multiple approaches to politics, multiple language from people from multiple countries, multiple approaches to emancipation, multiple avenues to freedom, multiple schools, multiple societies.....just FULL.

I've tried to get the AI to show me what this must have looked like....but something like this....

What I imagine Sunday was like outside of St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th and Walnut.

But I digress. Let's go back to the block of homes that are still standing as there are some notable Black leaders who lived there.

Cyrus Black

Cyrus Black was an organizer of the first Colored Convention held in 1830. In 1838 he lived at 172 Pine.

Dr. James Bias and Dr. Joseph Brister

in 1860, Dr. James Bias who is an incredibly important community leader, founder of the Black Oddfellows Lodge, Community Doctor, Vigilance Committee Leader, Underground Railroad conductor and Dentist Joseph Brister, father of the first UPENN Black graduate James Brister both practiced here.

Dr. Bias also died here.

It's interesting to think that these doctors may have created a sort of Black owned medical clinic in 606 Pine in 1860 - a decade before Douglas and Mercy hospitals.

Black Families

There were families here too. The Bundie, Guie and Rud families lived in 168. The Dorsey family lived in 170. And the Mckenzie family lived in 172 along with Cyrus Black.

It's just very powerful feeling to stand in front of these homes and know Black people lived and moved powerfully in them, and created life that has resonance for us to this day. Morgan and I aren't the only ones who feel it. I've seen our tour visitors reach out and lovingly touch the building, as if re-connecting to that time.

We walk past all of these places on our walking tour. But you don't have to wait for us, use our walking tour guide to check out these sites yourself. And if you want to really dig into the detail check out our interactive map. We invite you to spend a free day deep in your imagination as you stand on a street and feel that time for yourself.

Let us know what you see 😉.

Key to Discovering the House Numbers

First thing to note is that the houses have two numbers; the old number prior to 1854 and the new number after 1854. That street number change makes it incredibly difficult for researchers to definitely say that a historical figured lived in a certain house.

Fortunately, this block of Pine is well documented. In their dissertation, 2005 Penn grad student Purvi Bipin Gandhi, shows that the houses 600-610 (South side) were built in the early late 1700s and early 1800s. There is an 1819 Philadelphia Contributionship insurance survey for 176 pine though it was built earlier, somewhere between 1791 and 1794. It has a 'bake house' per the insurance survey and 1820s and 1830s city directories show bakers living there. The insurance survey also indicates that it is a 2 story house and notes is size and location. Given that this is the oldest house on this block, with a distinctive 2 stories, and the bake house indication with bakers living in the house, we can confidently say that the house was 176 Pine. As it still exists we can look at the new house number for it, which is 608. 608 then becomes our key to the rest of the block. We know that odd/even numbering system for houses was in effect since 1791. So we can assume that the adjacent houses were even numbers. These houses were all built in the 1830s and Gandhi chronicles how they have changed over time. The important point here is that while the facades have changed, the actual buildings haven't. Therefore we can then derive the house numbers on the south side of the street for the extant buildings, by using Clement Biddle's numbering system assuming even numbers for houses to the right and left of 176.

Next we have the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Black Census of 1838. That's how we know which families lived in which houses. For James Bias, the sources are his death certificate and his obituary in the weekly Anglo-American from 7/30/1860. For Joseph Brister the sources is UPENN archives. For Amelia Shad, the sources is The Liberator from May 23, 1835. And For Cyrus Black, in addition to his address from the 1838 Census, we have his participation in the forming on the first Colored Convention noted in the book 'Colored Regulars in The US Army'.

134 views0 comments


bottom of page