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Were the Daughters of Africa More Powerful than We Thought?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Hi! I'm Jordan, a history and secondary education major at Temple University and currently a CDFI intern here at 1838. I was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia and spent much of my youth in and out of the museums on the Parkway and in Old City. My research background is generally based on the intersection of religion and women's place in society.

Jordan Gibson, 2023 CDFI Intern, 1838 Black Metropolis

I am really interested in the Daughters of Africa because, while it is not uncommon to see women wanting to uplift other women, it is always interesting to understand the motives behind, and intricacies of, developing a whole organization dedicated to just that.

The Daughters of Africa, a Black womans social organization based in Philadelphia in the mid-1800s, left a lot of evidence that suggests they played much more of a role in the Black Metropolis than just uplifting black women in need (which is still a pretty big contribution).

After combing through their bylaws, minutes, and order book at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I got the impression that the Daughters of Africa may have had a hand in developing black education in Philly or may have placed a heavy importance on religion and morality for its members.

The Daughters of Africa left me with so many questions and speculations, with a feeling that they deserved my efforts to answer them.

While looking through the minutes book, I saw a development in handwriting wherein at the very beginning the cursive is very sloppy and barely legible, but there is a progression to a much more formal cursive in the later years.

Here are some examples, the first showing legible but inconsistent handwriting from 1822, and the second showing consistent and neat writing.

Daughters of African Minute Book, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

This next photo shows some writing from 1832, where we see the handwriting is much more uniform and each line of text is evenly spaced out.

Daughters of African Minute Book, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Here are some of my theories:

The Daughters and Education

Though I couldn’t read the earlier writings that well, I did not notice any misspellings which indicates that the scribes for the society were educated in grammar, but education may not have yet been standardized.

I also saw handwriting practice at the end of the minutes book which tells me that whoever the scribes were, they wanted their writing to be more accessible to others.

This led me to the question: Did the Daughters of Africa educate their members and place importance on the education of young Black girls and women? Or did they did they play a role in the greater uniformity of Black education, which we know occurred during the 1800’s?

I want to know if this is simply a correlation, or if Daughters of Africa played a much larger role in education than I initially thought.

How the Beneficial Society supported Unmarried Women

Political Scientist Gayle Tate discusses the subject of female beneficial societies in ree Black communities in the Norht in her book Unknown Tongues: Black Women's Political Activism in the Antebellum Era, 1830-1860.

Tate argues that Black women formed these societies, such as Daughters of Africa, in order to repair the damages done to the Black women and the Black community by racism and slavery.

Commmunity activism, namely aboltionism, was a route through which black women could do two things: (1) create a representation of themselves beyond domesticity and (2) shape the black community as a whole (page 147).

Page 147, Gayle Tate, Unknown Tongues: Black Women's Political Activism in the Antebellum Era, 1830-1860

The Daughters of Africa supports Tate's theories in that the Daughters of Africa proved that Black women could organize and become educated so that they can be viewed as more than just wives or mothers or maids. This society created a community through which women, who lacked the crutch of marriage, could still grow and develop.

In Article I of the bylaws for this organization, it is explained that their society was composed of single and widowed women, presumably to provide financial and social support for women who did not live in a two-income household and lacked the advantage of having a partner.

Article I, Daughters of Africa By Laws, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Were there any exceptions made for married women, such as those in marriages but still impoverished and struggling or those who may have been in abusive marriages?

Or could married women with a high enough social status buy their way into Daughters of Africa?

To the first point, I feel as though these exceptions could have been made later on in the life of the society, but they may have been avoided early on so as not to weaken the integrity of their foundation.

I believe my second question may be too unreasonable, but there could be a small chance that the society was desperate for funds however this seems unlikely.

Financial Organization of the Society

Here we tie back to Ujima - collective work and responsibility. We see this as a cultural tie back to our African values.

While looking through their dues book, I noticed the Daughters of Africa had a good sum of money in their savings and other areas to which the money was allocated to.

Not only that, but their treasury was organized.

Here we see a record of dues paid by members on January 13, 1826 - notice that members paid varying amounts, Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Daughters of Africa kept lists of each member who paid their dues and how much they owed, as well as lists of who their funds were allotted to and for what reasons. It is obvious that the society was serious about their cause and boasted incredibly intelligent and business savvy members.

However, I noticed in the last few pages of the dues book that there is an entire list of paying members crossed out, and in the following pages there are names crossed out throughout lists of paying members.

Were these members kicked out, and for what reasons?

I learned that around this time period, the Black Metropolis showed a strong and strict sense of morality so maybe these two events correlate. These names crossed out could be because the former members did not meet the moral standards of the society.

For example, the following photo describes the Committee convening in June of 1823 to decide the fate of two members, Ann Clinton and Elizabeth Hemmons. The text reads

"The Committe Considers the Conduct of Ann Clinton and Elizabeth Hemmons on the 21 May to be disordered and improper in the Extreme and request the Society to exact the Constitution."

From the Daughters of Africa minute book, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

This one is interesting because it shows the anger that the writer may have felt when she took these minutes. It reads:

"and pay up or be expelled."
From the Daugthers of Africa minute book, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Where the Daughters of Africa lived

In the image below we see Sarah Robinson, President of the Society, listed in the census as a widowed woman who worked as a whitewasher. She lived on South 6th Street.

From the 1838 PAS Census, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In this next image is another member of the Society, Sarah Jones, who lived on Portland Lane (now Cypress). She worked in domestic service.

After searching for both women on the interactive map, I found that they only lived one street off from each other. In the photos below we can recognize both areas being neighborhoods nearby Washington Square.

Note that we've added Daughters of Africa and some of the members to our network diagram. We may have a possible connection to the Pennsylvania Female Anti-Slavery Society in Sarah Lewis.

Join Me In This Journey

As a historian, I've realized that my devotion is to learning from the past.

The Daughters of Africa have taught me so much about how Black women in the 1800's took it upon themselves to strengthen the Black community financially and socially.

These women spoke to me through the minutes, due book, and bylaws and have instructed me to read between the lines and find their stories.

Ultimately, they told me to share my findings to you, the reader and ask: What do you think?


Constitution and Bye Laws of the Beneficial Society of the Daughters of Africa. Philadelphia: Printed for the society, 1831. Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  

Daughters of Africa--Minutes [Ams. 35] (1822-1838), Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Leon Gardiner Collection 

Daughters of Africa--Order Book [Ams .351] (1821-1829). Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Leon Gardiner Collection

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