The goal of this exercise is to describe the lives of free Blacks in Philadelphia, PA in the mid-19th century. Crosstabulations and frequency tables will be used.
Slavery marked American society in profound ways. Much research has been devoted to documenting and understanding this period of history as well as some of the residual effects that continue to impact social relations in the United States during the almost 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation declared an end to slavery. Less research has been devoted to studying the population of free Blacks in the United States prior to the American Civil War. According to the 1850 Census of the United States, there were approximately 435,000 free Blacks living in the United States in 1850 with more than 53,000 living in Pennsylvania at that time. Some of the free Black population had been born free while others had gained their freedom legally, by buying it or through manumission (when slaved were granted freedom by their owners or by state law). Still others gained freedom "illegally" by running away (which was dangerous and meant living in fear of being captured). Once free, Blacks set out to become part of the larger society.
During the 19th century, Abolition Societies in the Philadelphia area were active in voicing their opposition to slavery and offering support to free Blacks who faced many obstacles to success in a society where some people opposed their freedom. In an effort to demonstrate that freed Blacks could make a positive contribution to the larger community, Abolition Societies conducted a series of censuses that provide valuable (if incomplete/imperfect) information about this population. These censuses are unique: not only do they survey a population about which little is known, but they represent one of the earliest social research efforts to collect data using surveys.
In this guide, we will consider some aspects of the lives of free Blacks in Philadelphia, PA in the mid-19th century.
Examples of research questions about [concept]:
This exercise will use the Philadelphia Social History Project: Pennsylvania Abolition Society and Society of Friends Manuscript Census Schedules, 1847. Initially taken in 1838 to demonstrate the stability and significance of the African American community and to forestall the abrogation of African American voting rights, the Quaker and Abolitionist census of African Americans was continued in 1847 and 1856 and presents an invaluable view of the mid-19th century African American population of Philadelphia. The goal of the census was to demonstrate that freed Blacks could make a positive contribution to the larger community. Although these censuses list only household heads (providing aggregate information for other household members) and exclude the substantial number of African Americans living in White households, they provide data not found in the federal population schedules. When combined with the information on African Americans taken from the four federal censuses, they offer researchers a richly detailed view of Philadelphia's African American community spanning some forty years. The three censuses are not of equal inclusiveness or quality, however. Variables for each household head and his household include (differing slightly by census year): name, sex, status-at-birth, occupation, wages, real and personal property, literacy, education, religion, membership in beneficial societies and temperance societies, taxes, rents, dwelling size, address. These datasets provide a unique look at the lives of freed slaves in a northern city in the middle of the 19th century. Given the sample, these data are not representative. Addresses were used to collect these data, so a household is defined as people living in the same residence.
This exercise will use the following variables:
For ease of interpretation, recoding variables is sometimes necessary or helpful. (Note: the online analysis package used here also requires recoding variables for the sole reason of modifying or adding labels.) The following variables were recoded:
We recoded the marital status of the head of the household (MSTAT) into a variable with fewer categories by combining the categories of "widow" and "widower" into a category called "widowed" and also combining the categories "wife forsaken by husband" and "husband forsaken by wife" into a category called "forsaken by spouse." The new variable is called MARITAL.
We recoded the number born as slaves (BRSL) variable into a dichotomous variable where '0' means that no one in the household was born a slave and '1' means at least one person was born a slave. We renamed that variable SLAVEBORN.
The variables BTFD (number bought freedom) and NMAN (number manumitted) provide information about the ways in which household members who were born into slavery gained their freedom. Combining these variables into a single variable (HOWFREE) provides a succinct way of summarizing the information. HOWFREE contains four answer categories, coded "1: Bought freedom," "2: Manumitted," "3: Some of each," and "4: Gained freedom through other means."
PUBAID provides information about the number of people in the household who receive public aid. We recoded this variable by collapsing answers into two categories, coded "0" if no one in the household is receiving public aid, and "1" if at least one person is. The new variable is PUBAID2.
We transformed the variables NNAT and READ, which measure respectively the number of people in the household who are native to Pennsylvania and who can read, into variables that indicate the percentage of people in each household who are native to Pennsylvania and who can read. The new variables, PRCTNAT and PRCTREAD, are coded: "0: 0%," "1: up to 25%," "2: 25-50%," "3: 50-75%," and "4: over 75%."
The variables VERT1 (male occupation code) and VERT3 (female occupation code) each contain too many answer categories for useful analysis. We recoded VERT1 by collapsing answer categories into two, coded "'0: Unskilled labor" and "1: Skilled labor." We named this variable MWORK. Similarly we recoded VERT3 such that "0: Unskilled labor" and "1: Skilled labor." We named this variable FWORK.
The variables ATRL (number attending religious meeting), NBNS (number belonging to beneficial society), and TMSC (number belonging to temperance society) all contain more answer categories than are useful for analysis. In addition, the original variables do not take into consideration the size of the household, so we created a temporary variable that standardized these variables according to household size and then collapsed these responses into only two categories: "Half of household or less attends" and "More than half of household attends." The new variables are RELMTG, BENSOC, and TEMPSOC, respectively.
Most of the data collected in this census were collected about households as a whole, rather than individual household members. Therefore the unit of analysis in this exercise is the household.
Policymakers and researchers have long been concerned about family formation patterns among Blacks. In particular, conservatives and liberals alike have attributed a good deal of the social and economic disadvantages experienced by Blacks to the growth of female-headed families. They have also argued that family instability has roots in slavery and/or sharecropping, which supposedly destroyed or weakened many family bonds. In light of the continued debate about the origins of family formation problems among Blacks, including female-headed families, it may be useful to examine the available historical data.
The variable SEX gives us information about the gender of the head of the household.
According to the
The survey also collected data on the marital status of the head of the household (MSTAT)
that we subsequently recoded into a new variable, MARITAL. We ran a
Next, let's consider the size of families (NFAM). According to the
Heads of household surveyed were asked how many people in the household were born into
Those who were born into slavery could gain their freedom legally by purchasing it or
through manumission (i.e. when a slave was freed by her owner or by state law). To find
out which of these routes to freedom was most prevalent among the people surveyed, let
us look at a
The variable PRCTNAT measures the percentage of each household that is native to the
state of Pennsylvania. Recall that this variable was created using NNAT, which measures
the number of household members who were born in Pennsylvania. Take a look at the
Recall that one of the purposes of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and Society of Friends Manuscript Census was to demonstrate that free Blacks would be productive members of society. That is, they wanted to demonstrate that free Blacks were not going to be in and out of jail and engaging in criminal activity. One way to demonstrate this was to show that free Blacks were working and not simply using government assistance.
Before we turn to the types of work free Blacks did, we can use the dataset to see the
extent to which Black households were receiving public aid. The relationship between
public aid and the Black community is also long debated. Some scholars say that welfare
has been racialized such that people equate welfare with African Americans. Consider the
Now we will use the dataset to explore the type of work free Blacks did to earn a living.
We will first look at the type of work the women did in the mid-19th century.
Now we will consider
The ability to read serves many purposes in a society: it provides access to information;
it helps assimilate members into the culture; and it can foster political participation.
Now we will turn to the role of organizations in the lives of free Blacks in Philadelphia. Besides having a social component, memberships in these organizations might be taken as a willingness to be active in the community.
The Black Church is often cited as an important support structure for the Black
community. We can use the dataset to determine the degree to which free Blacks in
Philadelphia in the late 19th century relied on the church in their lives. The data on
church attendance are not useful in this census, so we will use religious meeting
attendance (ATRL) as a proxy. Examine the summary statistics for
Beneficial society membership
Another source of support was the Beneficial Societies, which were Black organizations
designed to help members dealing with sickness, extreme poverty, or burial expenses.
Membership in a Beneficial Society is measured with
Temperance society--Anti-drinking societies
We can also consider membership in an organization that was not directly related to the
plight of free Blacks. Temperance Societies opposed alcohol and bars because of the
crime these activities were thought to bring to the community. Consider the summary
Finally, we can examine whether the sex of the head of the household has any effect upon
these measures of community involvement. Look at the results for
Think about your answers to the application questions before you click through to the interpretation guide for help in answering them. Make sure you provided evidence for your answers.
Recall that this census was taken a time when states were debating the issue of slavery. So the goal of the Quaker and Abolitionist census was to demonstrate that free Blacks could become part of the larger society.
Things to think about in interpreting the results:
Reading the results:
The goal of this guide was to describe the lives of free Blacks in Philadelphia, PA in the mid-19th century. Taken together, the results suggest that the majority of free Blacks were members of male-headed, two-parent households--a finding that appears to contradict arguments about the instability of the Black family in the wake of slavery. Most free Blacks in this dataset indicated that no household members were born into slavery, but for those who were, freedom was obtained legally (primarily through manumission, but also, for some, by purchasing their freedom). The data show that free Blacks were much more likely to work for a living as opposed to receiving public assistance. Further evidence that the households in this survey were committed to gaining entry into the larger society can be found in their membership in community organizations. Overall, it seems that the Quaker and Abolition Society would have had ample data to show that free Blacks could, and did, make a positive contribution to society.
Future research might consider comparing free Blacks' experience to that of the newly arrived immigrants during the mid-19th century.