Philadelphia has long had a large and culturally rich black population, dating as far back as the seventeenth century. The first African-Americans moved to the Delaware River Valley region in 1639, and later in the century Philadelphia would become the major port through which slaves would arrive in Pennsylvania. By 1767 the importation of slaves in the city was banned, and in 1780 slavery was abolished by a law stating that any African-American born after 1780 would be free. This process of completely abolishing slavery in both Pennsylvania and Philadelphia proper was slow, and slavery would exist in the state well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1840 there were still sixty-four registered slaves in the state. Regardless, as the number of free blacks grew in Philadelphia grew, so did the prominence of the cities African-American population on a national scale. While free and holding a significant position nationally among other African-Americans, the black population of Philadelphia still faced significant segregation and were forced to live as a people apart within the city itself. Amidst this segregation, which continued beyond the Civil War, Philadelphia African-American’s were left to create their own, separate, cultural, economic, and social infrastructures. This included cultural productions that were dispersed on a nationally, such as the weekly periodical The Christian Recorder. Philadelphia’s African American population was able to use their foundation of these various necessary cultural institutions, forced upon them due to segregation, to assert their influence beyond the border of the city and to African-American populations in entirely different geographic regions. Thus, Philadelphia became a cultural center for African-Americans up to the civil war, and continued to hold its prominent position among African-Americans after the wars conclusion.
From emancipation in Pennsylvania up to the civil war, Philadelphia’s African-Americans often had to rely on their own social and economic infrastructure, outside of white structural frameworks, to provide themselves with various services such as education, religious services, social gatherings, and mutual aid. While relying on themselves for aid, African American’s living in Philadelphia often held jobs involving heavy labor, such as shipping, manufacturing, and jobs within the service industry. Thus, they provided service to the white population while having to receive service of their own by other means.
Societies such as the Free African Society, founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones with the goal of serving the spiritual, social, and economic needs of African-Americans residing in Philadelphia, would provide these crucial services to fellow African-Americans. This organization, the first of its kind in Philadelphia, would lay the groundwork for African-American cultural, social, and economic institutions that would follow.
While the Civil War and the emancipation proclamation changed much for African-Americans living in areas where the institution of slavery still existed, the effects upon the Philadelphia African-American population were less significant. Regardless of Philadelphia’s African American’s valiant efforts defending the Union, as many volunteered to fight in the U.S. Army, they continued to deal with racism and discrimination during daily interactions, continuing the pre-war tradition of forcing them to live as a people apart within the city of Philadelphia. Violence wasn’t uncommon, as shown by the 1871 murder of black Philadelphian leader Octavius Catto. African American’s had gained the right to vote in 1870, yet during the 1871 election, there were violent outbursts in the street, and Catto was murdered by white male. Catto’s murderer was not convicted of any crime.
Even though little changed for the majority of African-Americans in Philadelphia after emancipation, there were African-Americans who were able to earn an education and work outside of the service and labor industries. Some were able to be educated in segregated schools, while fewer actually attended universities. Education was most often earned in segregated schools such as the Institution for Colored Youth, founded by a Philadelphia Quaker in 1829 after race riots in an attempt to help educate African-Americans. Yet even this schooling was selective, and not every African-American in Philadelphia was eligible. Yet crucial to Philadelphia assuming it’s role as a cultural center for African-Americans on a national scale was the existence of an education portion of the population that were technically and logistically capable of producing works like weekly periodicals. The development of other institutions, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which supported many African-American institutions outside of just religion, allowed for the formation of a distinct African-American culture in Philadelphia. This included the development of a weekly periodical, The Christian Recorder.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1816 by Richard Allen in Philadelphia, and was a progressive church that was both anti slavery and racism. As mentioned above, churches posed the economic and structural ability to provide for the development of distinct African-American cultural structures beyond just a religious context, such as education and publishing. The Christian Recorder is the oldest existing black periodical in the United States and is the official periodical of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was first known as the Christian Herald, and was established in 1848 at the General Conference of the church in Philadelphia. In 1852 the name of the periodical was changed in The Christian Recorder. The periodical was based in Philadelphia but had correspondents around the country. The periodical’s first editor was Reverend M. M. Clark, one of the first college graduates of the church. Clark wanted the periodicals focus to be “religion, morality, science, and literature and would treat all geographical regions of the American Methodist Episcopal Church equally.” The periodical was also strongly against slavery, and pushed hard for emancipation in January 1862 before Lincoln began his push for emancipation.
The Christian Recorder was widely read and became one of the most popular periodicals for African-Americans in the entire country, having nearly 500 subscribers. Newsletters from Virginia, Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, and California were published in the periodical on a regular basis, far from the major urban cores of the Northeast. As having a subscription required money, subscriptions were often held by ministers and organizations that allowed for the periodical to be read by a larger audience. With the passing of the emancipation proclamation in 1863, the paper began to publish “Information Wanted” ads post by people searching for lost family and friends due to slavery. These ads were posted by people from all over the United States and Canada, again showing the readership to be geographically diverse. These ads also show that the periodical was read by a larger audience than its subscription suggests, as the chances of finding a person in a periodical with close to 500 subscribers were small.
The Christian Recorder, and the information wanted ad’s posted after the Emancipation Proclamation, presents a great representation of how the Philadelphia African American community was able to use their self-developed infrastructures to assert their influence on a board sale. A cultural production printed and published in Philadelphia by a Philadelphia based church had become a tool that was being used by African-Americans on a national level. The thriving African-American community in Philadelphia was able to utilize the their prolonged freedom, in comparison to other geographical regions, to develop a culture that enabled them to use modern communication and publishing techniques to spread their cultural development to other regions. Philadelphia, one of the oldest African-American cultural centers, continued to assert it’s influence in the period after the Civil War, helping those that were recently emancipated reunite with lost family members, and helping spread their unique culture on a national level.
Hunter, Marcus Anthony, “Black Philly after The Philadelphia Negro”.
Newman, Richard and James Mueller, editors. Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia: Emancipation and the Long Struggle for Racial Justice in the City of Brotherly Love. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011).
Mcgruder, Kevin. “The Black Press During the Civil War.”