Last Saturday at the Independence Visitor's Center there was a free lecture on Black History. Three gentleman spoke. I had heard the names before from briefly looking into those interred at Historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale. Some of the sections are named for these men. I learned about Eden Cemetery in April 2014 when a "Bench By The Road" was dedicated. The Bench By The Road Project is part of the Toni Morrison Society. I learned about this project when I was looking into more information about Sullivan's Island in South Carolina after I returned from a trip there. I did not see the bench and wondered how I could have missed it. I was in the direct vicinity. Sullivan's Island was the port of entry for approximately 40 percent of the African slaves brought to America.
Our first speaker at the visitor's center in Philadelphia was Absalom Jones, Joe Becton portrayed Mr. Jones, he is also a Civil War re-enactor, former NPS Supervisor and a musician just to name a few of his many talents besides story telling.
It is 1817 in Philadelphia.
There would be a question and answer session at the end, but we were to think about one question, Would you stay or would you go back to Africa?
Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746 before America had its freedom. His family was separated by being sold to different masters and he moved to Philadelphia with his new owner. Wynkoop, his master allowed him to attend school. He taught himself to read with a speller and a bible and later attended an Episcopal school for reading and learned math from the Quakers. He used a bible to practice his reading, and there he found God. He worked for himself during his off hours and made money from core wood and was able to buy a house and his wife's freedom. People used wood to heat their homes so it was a lucrative business. He was not initially able to obtain his own freedom but eventually Wynkoff granted him manumission, a slave owner freeing of his slaves. His home was at 3rd and Pine Streets in Philadelphia. He went on to become a co-founder of the Free African society and he founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black church in Philadelphia, in 1794. According to the episcopalarchives.org website the original St. Thomas Church was located at 5th and Adelphi Sts., now St. James Place just a few blocks from Independence Hall. The current location is Overbrook and Lancaster Avenue.in Philadelphia. Absalom Jones ashes are enshrined at the chapel there. Names for future reference that Mr. Jones mentioned were Bushrod Washington nephew of President Washington founder of the American Colonization Society, a movement to assist free black people to move back to Africa. Paul Cuffe was a sea merchant from Massachusetts who helped to colonize Sierre Leone.
The next speaker was Richard Allen (February 14, 1760 – March 26, 1831). Richard Allen was born into slavery in 1760. Benjamin Chew was his owner who eventually sold him to Sturgis Stokely. He introduced himself as a founder of the Free African Society and the Founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was also a wagon driver for the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He spoke of an incident at St. George's Methodist Church when the African congregation was in the middle of prayer they were ask to leave and go to a separate part of the church. Rev. Absalom Jones was there and asked to finish his prayer and they all got up and walked out of the church. Bishop Allen claimed this to be the first civil rights action. He also spoke about the Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia and how the people of color were thought to be immune and were called upon to administer help to the victims. During that time many were accused of stealing possessions from those they tended to. That was the gratitude they received for helping while most of the white population fled the city but the African population stayed and proved to be of great assistance to Benjamin Rush. Bishop Allen also mentioned that he gave the eulogy for former President George Washington. I was confused by this statement because I had thought I just read Henry "Lighthorse" Lee gave the eulogy and he did at the Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. Richard Allen gave the eulogy at the Bethel Church on December 29, 1799 and it was reprinted in the Philadelphia Gazette on December 31, 1799. Whereas, the original building is no longer there the parcel of land at 6th and Lombard where the Mother Bethel Church stands today is the oldest parcel of land owned by African Americans in this country. Originally I found Richard Allen to be angry or frustrated when he began to speak but by the end of his discussion I think he portrayed the voice of the times exactly as they were and those voices still speak to us today.
James Forten (September 2, 1766 – March 4, 1842) was the third speaker. I came across his name twice before in my history story readings. The first being my list of people buried at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale. Since the cemetery did not open until 1902 and the fact that he died in 1842 this is not possible but there is a memorial stone to him there, whether his body was later moved there or not I do not know. James Forten was different from the other two speakers, he was soft spoken but held himself differently than the other two gentlemen. He had a dignity about him. He did not have to command the audience like the preachers did. He was a man of means, a success, he was rich and he was born free. He was a respected member of society but he was still a man of color. He was a sailmaker and a successful business man and used his wealth to work for the progress and rights of the people of color. He mentioned Francis Scott Key and Henry Clay as strong proponents and participants in the American Colonization Society a movement that seemed to view free African Americans as refugees. James Forten also came up in my searching of privateers during the American Revolution. He served with the Continental Navy as a very young man and was captured and held prisoner by the British and refused freedom in support of his country risking being sold into slavery.
It was a special treat for me to hear these stories. I do not have a database in Black History, it was not taught when I was in school but there are plenty of resources out there and it is never to late to learn. These gentlemen were a live example of the education that is available. I hope I can offer not a complete Black History but pieces as I come across them. Even if for a brief time, I hope I have the opportunity to recognize it when I see it and sit on a bench by the road and just listen. We might all learn something we did not know.