Slavery, Freedom, and Oak Street
Excerpt from Those We Met Along the Way by Sharece Blakney
- In 1847, formerly enslaved people in Philadelphia spent $63,034 combined to purchase their freedom.¹
- Manumission laws in places like the Commonwealth of Virginia forced the formerly enslaved to leave upon gaining their freedom. The result was an increase in the free Black population in Northern cities.
- Known as the Great Migration (1915-1970s), millions of southern Blacks left for northern states seeking economic opportunities and fleeing racial violence and oppression.
In 1847, 97 of the 156 residents that lived on Oak Street were natives of Pennsylvania.² The remaining 59 individuals represent one of the earlier migrations of Black people seeking a new life in Philadelphia. Following the American Revolution, states such as Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware reassessed restrictions on private manumissions resulting in an influx of formerly enslaved people to Pennsylvania.³ Combined with the effect of the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, the growing and thriving Black community in areas like Philadelphia presented attractive opportunities for Black migrants. The 59 residents on Oak Street that migrated consisted of 19 people born enslaved. While 14 of them were manumitted, 5 of them purchased their freedom.⁴ Some of the entries for formerly enslaved people living on Oak Street provides information useful for understanding their lives prior to freedom.
Elias Farrel and Charles Myrs
Entries for manumitted individuals include information such as a prior state of residence, whether they were born enslaved, and their enslaver’s name. Elias Farrel and Charles Myrs were both manumitted by Lucy Burkley-Carter of Virginia.⁵ Although the census does not detail when these men were manumitted or why, both men were born enslaved and migrated to Philadelphia. The historical record found Elias living with a free born woman, a Pennsylvanian, in 1847. The pair rented a room for 31¢ per week in a household with four other people, and Elias operated his own cart in the city earning $4 weekly. Charles Myrs lived with two women that were also born enslaved and were manumitted by Lucy Burkley-Carter. All three were listed as being under 50-years-old (the next age category is “under 15 years”). While it possible that Charles had a family and the two women were his wife and daughter, the age ranges in the census make it difficult to determine the relationship between Charles and the two women. Charles was listed as “jobbing” in the winter, and selling ice cream in the summer.⁶
On June 5, 1813, Stephen Rigdon (1790-1865) married Martha Amos (1792-1865) from St. James Parrish, Maryland.⁷ Rigdon was born into a family with a history of enslavement and married into a similar family. While historic documents do not indicate whether Nathan Amos was a wedding present for Martha or perhaps part of an inheritance, the evidence does reveal details about his life in Philadelphia in 1847. Nathan lived on Oak Street with a family of five, two of whom were children attending Oak Street School. Nathan worked as a whitewasher earning $5 per week. Nathan was among the homeowners on his street; his real estate was valued at $300.
Adeline Kelley and Amy Wood
Similar to other families in their neighborhood, Adeline Kelley and Amy Wood made ends meet by sharing a home on Oak Street. Both were manumitted in Virginia and migrated to Philadelphia. Amy Wood was born enslaved outside of Pennsylvania and manumitted by Lucy Wood (1743-1826), sister of Patrick Henry who once famously proclaimed, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” in favor of the American Revolution.⁸ In the years leading up to her death, Lucy Wood lived in Albemarle County, Virginia and her son, John Wood handled her financial affairs.⁹ Wood’s poor finances resulted in her son requesting loans from relatives, Lucy Wood was distantly related to First Lady Dolley Madison.¹⁰ In a letter dated December 22, 1820, John wrote former President James Madison to borrow $200 to $500 on his mother’s behalf to avoid selling a slave. According to John’s letter, “the small pecuniary aid I am about to ask, would be most willingly afforded by my mother cou’d [sic] it be done without the Sale of a negro to which she is extremely averse…”¹¹ None of the documents mention the circumstances of Amy Wood’s manumission.
In 1847, Wood was head of household for a family of five. There are three children between the ages of 6 and 16, two attending The Oak Street School. They are listed as 5 of 9 occupants in the home. The other four are the family of Adaline Kelley, born enslaved and manumitted by Ann Thomas Bedford of Richmond, Virginia. Kelley raised her three children, two sons and one daughter, alone as her husband remained enslaved in Virginia. Kelley earned $1.50 each week taking in laundry and “days” work, and two of her children (all three were between the ages of 6 and 16) worked at the tobacco mill for $1 each per week. Combining their wages brought the household income to $14 monthly. In today’s terms, the family combined for a monthly income of $438.74, none of the children attended school.¹²
Enslaved on Oak Street
Below is a list of the other heads of households with one or more formerly enslaved occupants living on Oak Street in 1847 and all available details of their freedom.
Manumitted by Freedom Brown at 23 years old
Manumitted by Peter Higgin
Purchased freedom for $298
Purchased freedom for $100 from Thomas Davis of Delaware
Another occupant of household was born enslaved and manumitted
Manumitted by Thomas Buck at 35 years old
Manumitted by Joshua Wilson of Maryland
Purchased freedom for $200 from William Leg of Maryland
Manumitted by Mary Taylor of Virginia
Paid $60 for freedom at the age of 25, remaining 3 years of service waived
1 Accounting for inflation, the figure would be $1,975,377.94 as of February 11, 2020
2 Oak Street is present-day Ludlow Street. African American Census of Philadelphia. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College.
3 Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 137.
4 African American Census of Philadelphia. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College.
7 Maryland, Compiled Marriages, 1655-1850. Family History Library [database online]
8 Thomas S. Kidd, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011), 99. – – African American Census of Philadelphia. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College.
9 “To James Madison from John H. Wood, 22 December 1820,” The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, vol. 2, 1 February 1820-26 February 1823, edited by David B. Mattern, JC Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 182-183.
12 African American Census of Philadelphia. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College. – – Monthly income calculated using officialdata.org to account for inflation.
Armstrong Dunbar, Erica. A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Du Bois W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899.
Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Emancipation Experience in the Northern Seaport Cities, 1775-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Nash, Gary B. and Jean Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath. New York: Oxford, 1991.
Sinha, Manisha. The Slaves Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of Americas Great Migration. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2010.
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.