Free Blacks in Philadelphia, PA in the mid-19th Century: A Data-Driven Learning Guide Go to Resource


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.

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.

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Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research
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