Editor’s note: When it comes to Black Philadelphia history, like many well-read locals, Amy Jane Cohen, “had what I confess was a typically Yankee perspective,” she writes in her new book, Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy. “Lynching, Jim Crow and voter suppression were part of southern history. The North, by contrast, was the home of abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, and the Harlem Renaissance … “
In 2005, the School District of Philadelphia required all high schools to teach a course in African American history. Cohen, then teaching social studies at Masterman, volunteered — and became “quickly disabused of the myth of stark regional difference.” Black History … follows a clear path from the Isabella, the first slave ship to unload its human cargo into the port of Philadelphia in 1684, through the Civil Rights movement, to today, bringing to light revelatory and actionable details. (Every chapter ends with a short list of things you can do to enrich your Philly Black history IQ.)
Why is this important? In the book’s foreword, Wendell Pritchett of Penn Law quotes James Baldwin:
History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do.
From chapter two of Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy
No plantations. No cotton fields. No makeshift cabins clustered at a distance from a Greek Revival-style “big house.”
Philadelphia had none of these signposts of American slavery. Enslaved people were, however, very much a part of the city’s history. Though northern urban bondage operated differently from slavery in the South, it was both widespread and a cruel institution.
Laying down the law
In 1693, the city authorities sought to tamp down on the “tumultuous gatherings of Negroes of the old town of Philadelphia on the first day of the week.” They passed a law proclaiming that “the Constable of Philadelphia or any other person whatsoever is given power to take up Negroes, male or female, whom they should gather about the first days of the week, without a pass from their Master or Mistress, or not in their company, to carry them to the gallows, there remain that night, and that without meat or drink and to cause them to be publicly whipped the next morning with 39 lashes well laid on their backs.”
In 1726, the state legislature passed the Law for Better Regulation of Negroes. This act, which declared that “tis found by experience that free negroes are an idle, slothful people and often prove burdensome to the neighborhood,” required free Blacks be able to show proof of employment or risk being hired out by the authorities … until the 1780s, the enslaved population outnumbered the free.
Conditions of enslavement
Isolation was a salient characteristic of slavery in Philadelphia. Enslavers typically owned only one or two individuals; those who owned more tended to lease them out (until that practice was banned by the General Assembly in response to the protests of white laborers who objected to the competition). Enslaved men usually worked at the port or in a shop or business alongside their owner; enslaved women generally did domestic work. They lived in small spaces such as kitchens or garrets within their owners’ homes. Given the distribution of slaves as individuals or pairs across the city, acculturation into English-speaking society happened relatively quickly, even among those who had come to Philadelphia directly from Africa. Enslaved people in places like Philadelphia and New York City may have been better fed and housed than their southern counterparts; they lacked, however, the camaraderie and support of family and community close at hand.
As in southern slavery, family separation was a constant threat. Married couples, even if living under the same roof, could see one or both partners sold away to different owners. Once children reached the age of about ten, they would be hired out to other households, often outside the city. Despite all the hardships and restrictions, connections developed among enslaved Philadelphians, and the city’s free Blacks mingled socially among the enslaved. A strong network coalesced among Black Philadelphians, and a potter’s field on the outskirts of the young city became the focal point of that resilient community.
A gathering place
During the first century of Philadelphia’s existence, Southeast Square was distant from the city’s bustling port. In 1706, the square was declared a potter’s field in which strangers, suicides, vicitims of epidemic diseases, prisoners, soldiers, and both free and enslaved Black people were buried. It also became a gathering place for the Black community, a place where they could visit the dead and commune with the living during their limited free time. Given the frequent separation of family members into disparate households, the square was also a place where husbands could visit with their wives and parents could interact with their children.
John Fanning Watson’s book Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in Olden Times (1830) contains the following description, “It was the custom for the slave blacks, at the time of fairs and other great holidays, to go there to the number of one thousand, of both sexes, and hold their dances, dancing after the manner of their several nations in Africa, and speaking and singing in their native dialects, thus cheerily amusing themselves over the sleeping dust below!” Watson continues with this vivid recollection: “An aged lady … told me she had often seen the Guinea negroes in the days of her youth, going to the graves of their friends early in the morning and there leaving them victuals and rum!”
Watson’s estimate of one thousand people is almost certainly an exaggeration. Nonetheless, Southeast Square was a focal point of interaction for the city’s eighteenth-century polyglot Black community.
Dr. William Shippen, founder of the Medical College of Philadelphia, which later became part of the University of Pennsylvania, used cadavers stolen from the potter’s field in his lectures about anatomy. In 1782, a group of free Blacks petitioned the city to build a protective fence around their section of the field to stop the body snatching, but their request was denied. Much to Shippen’s dismay, free Black organized to stand guard at night to protect the bodies of recently buried relatives from exhumation. In a 1787 letter to his son, Shippen complained about “the negroes … determined to watch all who are buried in the Potter’s field.” He recounted how several grave robbers managed to “beat off the negroes” and obtain a corpse, but “the resolute impertinent blacks broke open ye house stole ye subject and reburied it.”
By the wayside
Washington Square today bears little resemblance to the potter’s field and social gathering place of old. The upscale apartment buildings on three sides of the leafy park have few Black residents. The office buildings, trendy restaurants, individual homes, and small organizations around Washington Square give no hint of the African American past. Within the square itself, a plethora of plaques and markers categorize the park’s trees, commemorate the park’s protectors, and explain the park’s history. Of the more than forty varied plaques and markers, there is a single two-foot high wayside marker that describes the eighteenth-century square. It was erected as one of five similar markers in 2002 when stewardship of Washington Square was transferred from Philadelphia to the National Park Service. Entitled “Sorrow and Joy,” it reads, in part:
Philadelphia supported a thriving African American community that celebrated its rich heritage in festivities in Washington Square. Until the 19th century, this was often a sorrowful place. Many people knew it as a potter’s field, “a publick burying place for all strangers,” for soldiers, sailors, convicts, and the “destitute whose remains are walked over.” A lonely Acadian refugee found eternal rest here, along with epidemic victims, Catholics and African Americans. Only free and enslaved African Americans brought a measure of mirth to this square which, according to oral tradition, they called “Congo Square.”
Although the term Congo Square has not been documented in writing, it has become a shorthand way of linking Washington Square to the Black community. Historians at the National Park Service and elsewhere are increasingly aware that, to understand African American history, nontraditional sources must be considered.
Arts continue the connection
While there is little visible in the current landscape to keep the idea of Congo Square alive, members of the Philadelphia arts and culture community have tried to fortify the bond between African Americans and Washington Square. In recent years, the square was the site of Juneteenth celebrations. In the week following the 2020 police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia, activists from Spiral Q, an activist, community-based arts organization, staged a daybreak dance performance. The goal of the event was to “illuminate Black Philadelphia space, lives and legacies in Washington Square Park, once known as Congo Square.” In 2012, the African American poet Lamont B. Steptoe published Meditations in Congo Square. The titular poem evokes a vivid, albeit imaginary, picture of eighteen-century Southeast Square:
There are children here running in and out of their mother’s skirts dusky feet of joy pearly white smiles in African masks of sorrow
There are old ladies bowed puffing on corn cob pipes heads wrapped in scarlet bananas whiskered like old men
Someone’s speaking in ba-Kongo another answers a question asked in English with a phrase of Wolof
Someone is telling a joke in Mandingo a young man — salt water African — becrys his fate in Swahili
A right shout is underway someone whose taken too much rum bewails the absence of drums
Bushy black curls and frenzied feet move in rhythm to a Congo beat
House slaves tip they hats to free-men-of-color another day of jubilee with some of us free
When dark begins to fall we’ll leave this weekly ball pray that another sun will bless us pray for the death of those that oppress us
We ain’t got no gold but the riches we have money can’t buy
We just grin and groan and laugh and moan.
Material drawn from “Community Formation in the Colonial City: The Ghosts of Washington Square” from Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy by Amy Cohen. Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 2024 by Temple University. All Rights Reserved.
Correction: A previous version of this excerpt misstated the date Philadelphia authorities sought to tamp down African American public gatherings.
MORE ON BLACK HISTORY FROM THE CITIZENBlack History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy (left) and author Amy Cohen (right). Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 2024 by Temple University. All Rights Reserved.