Life on Oak Street
Excerpt from Those We Met Along the Way by Sharece Blakney
- The first census of Philadelphia’s African American population was conducted in 1838 to make a case for protecting black voting rights.
- In 1847, more than 50% of adults in Philadelphia’s African American community received aid from a mutual beneficial society or organization that provided financial support in case of sickness or assistance burying the dead.
- Pennsylvania passed legislation establishing free, tax-supported education as early as 1802. Free, tax free schools in Philadelphia permitting African American children were established in 1822.
The results of the Philadelphia African American Census (PAAC) in 1847 were published in a pamphlet titled, “A Statistical Inquiry into the Condition of the People of Colour, of the City and Districts of Philadelphia.” Conducted by the Society of Friends, the census was intended to “encourage their friends to persevere in their efforts to remove the distress and degradation which prevail among a portion of them, most of which can be distinctly traced to the evil influences of slavery.”¹ The data collected in the African American census provided insight into the lives of Black Philadelphians.
The PAAC documented many of the school-aged children living on Darby Road (present-day Woodland Avenue) near Bartram’s Garden, attended the Oak Street School.² The 1847 census of African Americans in Philadelphia has 33 entries for households on Oak Street (present-day Ludlow Street). Similar to the 1838 census, the information gathered included details on occupations and wages by gender, literacy levels, public aid dependence (if any), and housing. The following is an analysis of data compiled from the entries of residents living on Oak Street. For data on the formerly enslaved and manumitted residents of Oak Street in 1847, please see Slavery, Freedom, and Oak Street.
Residents on Oak Street were both homeowners and renters. There were 23 households renting accommodations and 10 either owning or paying a mortgage. Black renters paid a total of $63.64 monthly, averaging $2.76 per household per month. Black homeowners on Oak Street held $4150 in real estate, an average value of $415 per homeowner.³
The census also gathered information on personal property. Personal property included cash/savings as well as clothing and household items of value, such as furniture.⁴ The total value of personal property of residents on Oak Street was $11,201. However, when distinguishing between the personal property of homeowners and renters, the wealth distribution among Oak Street residents becomes clear. Homeowners held $8,861 in personal property compared to $2,340 held by renters. Homeowners paid an average of $338.40 in property taxes annually.⁵
In 1847, some households on Oak Street were led by men and some by women. The occupations of those men and women varied as much as the wages. Comparing the list of occupations below reveals the options for employment available to men versus those available to women at the time.
Women: Washing (laundress), Seamstress, Domestic, Ladies maid, Cook, Snuff mill worker, Shop worker
Men: Brickmaker, Farmer, Whitewasher, Cake salesman, Jobbing, Laborer, Carter, Domestic, Sawmill worker, Hostler, Clothes dealer, Ice cream salesman, Bartender, Coachman
The 6 occupations held by women living on Oak Street compared to 14 for men are indicative of the limited options for women. The opportunity to gain a valuable skillset that translated to higher wages also eluded women. Many of the women living on Oak Street that took in laundry supplemented their income by taking on additional tasks such as ironing, “days” work, cooking, and sewing.
Wages for Oak Street residents also depict a gender disparity. For example, while two entries showed men earning less than $2 per week, there were 12 entries for women earning the same wage across various occupations. On average, women’s monthly wage was $6.27 compared to $15.50 earned by men.⁶ Of the 84 adults living on Oak Street, 39% have no occupation or wages listed.⁷
The occupations and wages of children with earnings separate from the head of household was not factored into the above data. There were six employed children living on Oak Street in 1847. Two worked in the snuff mill earning $1 weekly, one snuff mill worker earned 50¢ per week, two children combined to $15 per month with no specified occupation, and one child earned 50¢ a week with no listed occupation.
The 33 households on Oak Street were comprised of 156 residents, 72 children and 84 adults.⁸ Among the school-aged children, 32 were registered to attend the local Oak Street School. The census found that 44 residents were able to read and 36 were able to write. The categories for literacy do not indicate the age or gender of individuals.
1 Philadelphia African American Census 1847, Swarthmore College, Friends Historical Society. All the following data and statistics were compiled from the Philadelphia African American Census 1847.
2 Sharece Blakney, Stories We Know: Recording the Black History of Bartram’s Garden and Southwest Philadelphia, edited by Aislinn Pentecost-Farren (published by the John Bartram Association and Mural Arts Philadelphia, 2017).
3 Based on 2019 data, $4150 would currently be $129,387.64 for an average value of $12,938.76 per homeowner. — www.officialdata.org
4 Personal Property values for homeowners did not include the residence. No household entry had a personal property value of $0, minimums of $20 were entered.
5 $338.40 in 1847 was the equivalent to $10,550.55 in 2019. – – www.officialdata.org
6 $6.27 in 1847 is the equivalent to $195.48 in 2019. $15.50 in 1847 was the equivalent to $483.26 in 2019. – – www.officialdata.org
7 The census had four age ranges: under 5 years, under 15 years, under 50 years, and over 50 years. This report classified “adult” as individuals in the under 50 and over 50 categories (16-years-old to 50-years-old and 51+).
8 30 of the children were under five-years-old and not included in the school attendance figure.
About Sharece Blakney
Sharece Blakney is an independent historical research consultant. Her research interests focus on American slavery and freedom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, specifically in legal and social history. Her current work, Stories We Know and Those We Met Along the Way, involves the development of the African American community in Kingsessing and Southwest Philadelphia. Previous projects include Charting a Path to Resistance, an interactive mural and mobile app commissioned by the City of Philadelphia. The mural centered on abolitionism, Black women activists, and racial violence in nineteenth-century Philadelphia.
Blakney holds an MA in American History from Rutgers University-Camden and is currently pursuing an MI in Library & Information Science with a concentration in Archives & Preservation at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.