When histories are minimized or lost, they often times leave trails, breadcrumbs or bright lights that hint at larger, more impactful narratives than we’ve been told. Dr. James Joshua Gould Bias (referred to hereinafter as ‘Dr. J.J.G Bias’) is a figure that appears over and over in many different historical documents, though he doesn’t have a biography or a wikipedia page or a historical maker. He is basically unknown to many of us.
ChatGPT has no idea who he is.
However, as we begin to connect the dots between the documents, what emerges is a life that hints at a much more organized emancipation circuit in Philadelphia than we have previously imagined.
I first encountered Dr. J.J.G Bias in the 1838 Register of Trades of the Colored People of Philadelphia. This pamphlet was one of a set of four documents developed by a full court press of Black leadership in partnership with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1838 to prevent the loss of the right to vote.
Recognizing the political threat and organizing late in 1837 and early 1838, work was divided up. The PAS would work with Charles Gardiner, member of the Philadelphia VigilantCommittee and Pastor of the Second African Presbyterian Church, to collect a full census of all Black people in the city (1838 Census of the Colored People of Philadelphia). From that they would also produce a register of all the advanced Black tradespeople and business owners (The Register of Trades of the Colored People of Philadelphia). Using these two documents, a statistical report was generated (A Report on the Present State of the Colored People of Philadelphia).
And finally, Black community leadership, a group that included church leaders like Stephen Gloucester, business leaders like Robert Forten and anti-slavery leadership like Robert Purvis, would work to develop a documented appeal, an opinion piece that would leverage the PAS statistical work to try and convince delegates in Harrisburg on the eve of the vote to disenfranchise Black people (Appeal of forty thousand citizens, threatened with disfranchisement).
From Appeal of forty thousand citizens, threatened with disfranchisement. James Joshua Gould Bias lived with his wife Eliza on 2 Acorn Alley in 1838. I think I was enamored with the warmth of the sound of ‘2 Acorn Alley’; it gave me hobbit, storybook feels. But at the time I was deep in my passion project to map the Register of Trades so I also had to find out where Acorn Alley was and what it was now called.
After a search of the 1830 Tanner Map, I victoriously found Acorn Alley at about 10:30 PM. I can’t remember which resource it was but I had also discovered that the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia, the original organizational leadership of the Underground Railroad, met at Dr. Bias’ home and I decided that I was going to Outlander it and try to touch some stones to go back in time to watch Robert Purvis, Hetty Reckless and James J.G.Bias walk to the Vigilance Committee meeting. It was late and dark and so I forced my husband up from his massage chair to go with me and we did our brief pilgrimage.
At that time of day, the alley was fairly well lit because Acorn Alley is now part of the Penn Hospital complex between Spruce and Locust and 8th and 9th. It’s the small alley now called South Schell, laid out right next to the Mikvah Israel Cemetery. As hallowed ground, the cemetery had been there from the late 1770s and had not moved and so the physical imprint of the street still gave the feel of what it must have been. Javi and I walked the street and just sat there for a while thanking the ancestors, but secretly hoping we could open the portal to the past.
After that late night trip, Dr. Bias became yet another passion and so I tried to understand all he was involved in. And I kept seeing his name in everything. So many things, in fact, that I started to develop a theory that he and/or the Vigilant Committee somehow were communicating his address as a first stop, a safe haven for freedom seekers.
I’ll try to lay out the evidence.
There were actually two iterations of The Vigilant Committee; the 1837 Robert Purvis version and the 1852 William Still version. The Vigilant Committee was created to ‘aid colored persons in distress’; essentially to provide immediate post self-emancipation support for freedom seekers. Dr. J.J.G Bias is a leader in the 1837 version. In this article from the December 9, 1837 The Colored American we see the beginning of the Vigilant Committee — then called The Philadelphia Committee — with J.J.G Bias as a founder.
The 1838 Vigilant Committee records were said to have been destroyed by Robert Purvis, but in 1933 Leon Gardiner found the minute book of The Vigilant Committee in the basement of a church (See page 329 of Borome’s The Vigilant Committee). Thank God! Gardiner’s whole Black history collection is now at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. That we collectively as a people almost lost this important book is a story in itself.
But what’s in it is key. Because what standard history textbooks tell us in terms of the support for freedom seekers when they came to Philadelphia is that they went to William Still’s office. Periodt. Historians don’t often talk about the wizard level organization skills of the Black community to provide safe haven for the thousands of people who literally would show up needing everything.
Scholars say close to 100,000 people self-emancipated by using the Underground Railroad. But the issue for me is that the 1850 US Census lists 400,000 free Black people in the United States. Did the other 300,000 self-emancipate too but we just don’t have the proof? Or were they manumitted?
The 1838 PAS Census takers had the foresight to ask people if they were from out of state (ie had come to Philly from somewhere else), if they had been manumitted, if they had paid for their freedom and if so, how much. I think they were aiming to set up an argument for reparations maybe, or perhaps prove a point about the resiliency of the Black family, and the strength of the Black community — to absorb thousands of people yearly who arrive with nothing, help them into social networks that provided sanctuary and the ability to grow.
And the Vigilant Committee notes are hinting at that angle. First of all, it’s a group of leaders who had access to networks of communications throughout the Black city of 1838, a population of nearly 20,000 free Black people. In the notes they do things like;
Spend money on advertisements in local newspapers to encourage donations and support for freedom seekers
Arrange for ‘soiree’ fundraisers
Keep case notes of hundreds of people who arrived in the city and note how much it cost them to move them out of the city.
Many of those notes reference people either ‘reported’ by J.J.G. Bias — which would mean that somehow someone in the community knew that if a freedom seeker needed help, the way to get help was to contact Dr. Bias. Like these notes where ‘reported by’ means someone sought aid from Dr. Bias.
№9 July 17th (1838) Woman from Vir. Sent to N.Y.V.C. Reported by J.J.G. Bias. Ex. $3.00
№51 Dec. 18th (1838) Man from Bal reported by J.J.G Bias, introduced by Mr.G Sent to N.Y. Ex. $2.00
Or this note where ‘assisted by’ means that someone was sent to Dr. Bias specifically for help.
№13 July 29 (1838) Case attend by J.J.G. Bias from Wm County. Expense $9.50. Omitted in agents report
Bias was a medical practitioner. In the 1838 Census he lists his occupation as ‘Dentist’ and his wife Eliza as a ‘Cupper’. Scraps of African Methodist Episcipal History says that Dr. Bias was born enslaved in Maryland but that he was a carriage driver to a physician. It doesn’t say how he obtained his freedom but it says that soon after he did he moved to Philly.
It seems that the trajectory of many incoming freedom seekers was to get work in the construction trades soon upon arriving. Dr. Bias started out as a whitewasher, which is someone who plasters over bricks on buildings.
As an aside, the way that the white mob attacks on the Black community have been framed by historians was that incoming Irish laborers and Black laborers were fighting (“rioting”) because they were equals in contests for low wage jobs. But Bruce Laurie writes that it was the monopoly of Black workers in the construction trades, and especially on the waterfront where employers noted that that “portions of our community prefer to employ colored people.” (Laurie page 65).
This is a more nuanced story. It suggests Black organizational power to create labor monopolies, perhaps to ensure jobs for a growing incoming population of freedom seekers. It also suggests the fact that Black workers were good workers, such that when given the choice, employers chose Black workers over white workers. I surface this because what happens with historiography is a simplification of the story; it becomes “Blacks and whites rioted for jobs” when in fact it was “Black labor organization and monopolies as well as preference for Black workers in the hiring classes caused anger in white workers who violently assaulted the Black community because of this anger”.
But soon, Dr. Bias leveraged what he had learned from the physician to provide medical aid to the community. His location on 2 Acorn Alley put him within a blocks walk of the Pennsylvania hospital and the Friends Meeting house at the corner of 9th and Spruce. We could imagine the Friends meeting house as a known friendly organization for incoming freedom seekers. Imagining further, maybe Dr. Bias was able to form relationships with both the Friends and the people in the hospital to procure supplies for medical aid. Of course, there is no documented proof but it’s a tantalizing proposition.
Dr. Bias moved on to providing medical services like “leeching, bleeding, and extracting decayed teeth.” Eliza Bias, noted as a ‘cupper’ in the 1838 Census, also provided medical services. It’s interesting to note that the cost for the person ‘attended to’ in the Vigilance Committee notes was $9.50 — much much higher than the usual $2 or $3 noted in the cases where people came through Philly and went North. This suggests that something else occurred and — perhaps the higher costs of medical attention.
And Dr. Bias and Eliza took out ads!–
2 Acorn Alley was an active place. The Vigilance Committee met there. Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History notes of Eliza that “Gladly did she second all the movements of her husband in hiding and forwarding in her home and from her home troops of flying slaves.” Providing sanctuary for freedom seekers probably continued as the Bias’ moved throughout the city.
Freedom seekers may have known to seek out 2 Acorn Alley as another friendly place of potential sanctuary as the address was printed in every Colored American in 1840. Dr. Bias became an agent of the Colored American in 1838.
Colored American, 10 Oct. 1840
In 1841 Dr. Bias and Eliza moved from Acorn Alley to 8th and Bedford, which would have placed them right in the center of white mob attacks in 1841 and 1842. I wonder if their home was affected by the riots as there is indication in the November 10, 1848 Liberator that says “Dr. J.J.G Bias, Samuel Van Brackle, Rev. C.W. Gardner and the lamented Andrew Harris…were scoffed, assaulted, and mobbled; and in some instances their property was burnt, and otherwise destroyed….Dr. Bias has thrown his whole soul into the work, and his labors have been second to none.” (emphasis added).
While it is clear from the records that the community held Dr. Bias in high regard, there was one strange incident that may have involved Frederick Douglass where Dr. Bias was accused of not providing funds for a freedom seeker. A Mrs. Harriet Bayley was assisted to freedom by the Vigilant Committee who arranged for her transport north via boat. Dr. Bias met her at the boat and evidently told Mrs. Bayley that he had left her funds at home. A Mr. Douglass issued a public letter of complaint against the Vigilant Committee published in the February 17, 1844 ‘Weekly Elevator’ (which I cannot find anywhere online) stating something along the lines that the Vigilant Committee was not managing funds correctly. A note from this paper suggests that the ‘Mr. Douglass’ mentioned is actually Frederick Douglass and that Mrs. Harriet Bayley is his sister. However, without the actual newspaper record, it’s impossible to know.
In 1843 the Bias’ moved to 157 South 6th Street. In 1851 the Bias’ address changes to 189 South 6th Street. This could be a move but it also might be because of the street address changes occurring around the Consolidation.
Here's another interesting story. Eliza Bias was mentioned in The Kidnapped and the Ransomed, a book about Peter Still, William Still's brother. When Peter first arrived in Philly he stayed with the Bias'. And it was Eliza (according to the book) that encouraged Peter to go visit the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society office where the famous meeting between William Still and his brother occurred. We host the Kidnapped and the Ransomed here on our site.
Somewhere between 1855 and 1860 they moved to 606 Pine street as that is the address listed on his death certificate. Interestingly, Dentist Joseph Brister, father of the first UPENN Black graduate James Brister also practiced 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.
606 Pine Street, Philadelphia, PA https://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/Detail.aspx?assetId=2372
It’s unclear if Dr. Bias and Eliza had any children. The 1860 Census shows Dr. Bias at 50 years old, and Eliza as 36, 14 years his junior. There is a child, Leonard Bias, who is 1 year old noted in the census, but I have been unable to find any other records. There were two other people in the home; Lombard Micker and Mathilda Sullivan, age 23.
But let’s go back to January, 1852, when Dr. Bias and Eliza were on 189 South 6th Street. This is when Dr. Bias tended the wounds of George Williams, a freedom seeker who had been a part of a group that successfully liberated four enslaved people during the Christiana incident. Williams had been acquitted by a jury but stolen by a slave catcher and taken to Lancaster. He escaped and walked (!) from Lancaster to Philadelphia where he somehow connected with Dr. Bias. “He was nursed and attended by the late Dr. James Joshua Gould Bias, one of the faithful few, whose labors for the oppressed will never be forgotten, and whose heart, purse, and hand were always open to the poor, flying slave. God has blessed him, and his reward is obtained.”(The freedman’s story)
I haven’t even touched the rest of what he did. Because while he was aiding freedom seekers, being the community doctor, preaching at Mother Bethel, writing a book on Phrenology, and starting the Carthaginian Lodge of the Oddfellows, he also graduated from the Eclectic medical college as a trained doctor in 1852, finally getting the academic credentials he probably had earned by practice for so many years (colored conventions).
Here is a listing of all the places I know that Dr. Bias is mentioned:
1837 — He is mentioned as a founder of ‘The PHiladelphia Committee’ in The Colored American
1838–1842 — The Vigilance Committee Notes (link to our housing of the notes on 1838 BlackMetropolis)
1838 — The Appeal of the 40,000 — he is a leader in the organizing effort to prevent disenfranchisement.
1838–1840 Mentioned in multiple The Colored American newspapers as ‘agent’
1842 — Mentioned in The Liberator as a planner of the memorial services for James Forten
1847 — Mentioned in The Liberator as an attendee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society meeting
1848 — Eliza Bias and Dr. Bias are mentioned in The Liberator as leaders in the community and temperance movement
1849 — Mentioned in the Anti-Slavery Bugle as attending the meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. I believe that it’s relatively unknown that he was a member of the PASS.
1853 — Mentioned in The Liberator as a speaker for West Indian Emancipation Day “J.J.G. Bias, M.D., was then enthusiastically called for, and responded in a speech of great power an eloquence, which was warmly greeted and frequently interrupted by cheering.”
1866 — Mentioned in the The Freedman’s Story as a medical practitioner to George Williams
1902 — Mentioned in Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History as a leader in the
1996 — Mentioned in We All Got History as a founding member of the Carthaginian Lodge of the Oddfellows
So I think by now you’ve probably guessed at my theory. Which is that I think it’s possible that The Vigilant Committee ensured that 2 Acorn Alley was a known address to freedom seekers, such that when they arrived in Philly, they would know to go there. If they did, they would get immediate medical and financial assistance. The address was printed in The Colored American, and in ads in the Public Ledger. His home was open to freedom seekers as a place of sanctuary. Further, Dr. J.J.G. Bias was involved everywhere; at Mother Bethel AME, in the Oddfellows, in the Anti-Slavery groups, in the medical community. I think even if freedom seekers didn’t know his address, they knew who to ask for, and everybody probably knew who he was.
So why haven’t we heard about him? This is an important question because we should have. This story suggests the following:
Advanced social and community organization skills
The use of public media (newspapers) for veiled communications.
The positioning of a leader, again as a veiled message to freedom seekers.
The loss of a community hero, somehow we’ve forgotten him.
A much more active Underground Railroad safehouse circuit within Philadelphia, run specifically by Black folks.
It’s time to send these messages out to the cosmos so that our young children can understand the greatness from which they come and build even more incredible futures that we can’t even imagine.
(this is a reprint of an article I posted on Medium before we had this blog. Just moving it over here so everything is in one place).