Life on Oak Street

(Philadelphia African American Census, 1847., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., African American Census, 1847 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013. Original data: African-American Census of Philadelphia, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College.)

The following is an excerpt from “Those We Met Along the Way,” a series of vignettes recounting the African American community’s development in Kingsessing, Slavery, and the Bartram Family

For a larger image of the census, click here.

*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 benefit 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.


Residents on Oak Street were both homeowners and renters. There were 23 households renting accommodations and ten 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 and clothing and household items of value, such as furniture.[4] The total value of the personal property of residents on Oak Street was $11,201. However, when distinguishing between homeowners’ and renters’ personal property, the wealth distribution among Oak Street residents becomes clear. Homeowners held $8,861in personal property compared to $2,340 saved 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 professions below reveals the options for employment available to men versus those available to women at the time.


Washing (laundress), Seamstress, Domestic, Ladies maid, Cook, Snuff mill worker, Shop worker


Brickmaker, Farmer, Whitewasher, Cake salesman, Jobbing, Laborer, Carter, Domestic, Sawmill worker, Hostler, Clothes dealer, Ice cream salesman, Bartender, Coachman

The six occupations held by women living on Oak Street compared to 14 for men indicate 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 making 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 household head were not factored into the above data. Six employed children were 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 work.


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. —

[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. – –

[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. – –   

[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.

Related Reading

Clement, Priscilla Ferguson. “The Transformation of the Wandering Poor in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia.” In Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935, ed. by Eric H. Monkkonen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kantrowitz, Stephen. More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012. 

Pimpare, Stephen. A People’s History of Poverty in America. New York, NY: The New Press, 2011.

Silcox, Harry C. “Delay and Neglect: Negro Public Education in Antebellum Philadelphia, 1800-1860.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 97, no. 4 (1973): 444-64. Accessed January 12, 2019.

Winch, Julie. Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

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