Racial Uplift in Philadelphia

African American leaders urged blacks to cultivate racial pride in order to counteract centuries of oppression and denigration. Philadelphians created and sustained a variety of black-led institutions, such as churches, charities, and schools. The rich social life and philanthropic activities organized by these institutions shielded the black community from discrimination and helped elevate less advantaged members of the race both culturally and economically.

Constitution, By-laws and Rules of the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons. Philadelphia: Merrihew & Son, Printers, 1865.

“Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons” and “Rev. Stephen Smith” in Evidences of Progress among Colored People by G. F. Richings. Philadelphia: G. S. Ferguson, 1896.

The Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons was founded in 1865 and run by an interracial group that included Sarah Mapps Douglass and William Still on the board of directors. The constitution noted that there were few charitable institutions available to blacks and that African Americans were disproportionately worn out by poorly paid hard work without the means to care for themselves in old age. A generous endowment from African American businessman Stephen Smith in 1871 allowed the home to move into spacious quarters at Girard and Belmont Avenues, as displayed in the photograph on the wall. Residents were encouraged to vote and lectures by prominent African Americans helped them stay informed about racial issues.

Bank Book of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. 1872. Gift of Cordelia H. Brown, Lillie V. Dickerson, Mary Hinkson Jackson, and Georgine E. Willis in honor of Phil Lapsansky.

The Freedmen’s Bank was created primarily to offer freed people in the South a secure financial institution for small deposits. However, two branches were established in the North, including one in Philadelphia, where deposits reached $84,657 by 1874. The establishment of banks specifically to serve black customers and advance their economic well-being had long been a topic at colored conventions. Members of the Venning family, including ten-year old Miranda Venning, likely opened accounts as much to support a black institution as to have a secure place to deposit funds. The Freedmen’s Bank failed in 1874 due to mismanagement and a financial panic, resulting in the loss of $2.9 million in deposits by African Americans.

Samuel A. Alston, John W. Harris, and Isaiah Nusume. Dear Sir: You Are Requested to Attend a Meeting. Philadelphia, 1887.

This unusual letter, written by 17- and 18-year-old African American boys, proposes the establishment of an interracial club. The authors were neighbors living on or in the vicinity of Rodman Street, a predominantly black area of Philadelphia. Samuel A. Alston and John W. Harris were the sons of waiters while Isaiah Nusume (Newsom or Newsome in census records) appears to have been the son of a laborer. Although it is not known if plans for the club came to fruition, the efforts of these young men point to the involvement of working-class black Philadelphians in community building.

Young Men’s Christian Association. Philadelphia, 1890. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

William Still chaired the South-East Branch of this Philadelphia YMCA. Although “not organized along the color line,” the branch’s officers and constituents were largely African American. Since Philadelphia did not have a municipally funded public library at this time, this fundraising initiative was intended to build a library for educating and uplifting black youth. The committee work is divided by gender with men soliciting donations while women organized the social event.

Women’s Union Missionary Society. A Call to Women. 1895. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

As its name suggests, the Women’s Union Missionary Society was an organization of women from different religious denominations. Among the projects of the Philadelphia chapter made up of black women was the establishment of a day care facility for working black mothers. This handbill demonstrates the ways in which black women engaged in social activism through clubs. Black women’s club and committee work, as with that of white women, often took place behind the scenes.

To the Widows of the Colored Soldiers and Sailors of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, 1869.

The patriotic spirit of the Civil War lingered and spurred charitable efforts to support those left behind and recognize the African American role in re-establishing the Union and abolishing slavery. This long list of widows and orphans demonstrates the impact of the war on many black families in the Philadelphia area.

The Work of Lincoln University, Chester County, Pa. Baltimore: Press of John S. Bridges & Co., 1886.

Alumni Association of Lincoln University. Annual Meeting. Philadelphia, 1883. Gift of Cordelia H. Brown, Lillie V. Dickerson, Mary Hinkson Jackson, and Georgine E. Willis in honor of Phil Lapsansky.

Founded in 1854 in southeastern Pennsylvania, Lincoln University was one of the few institutions of higher education open to African Americans. It attracted both black Northerners and Southerners, producing a disproportionate number of the country’s African American professionals. During its first hundred years as a university for black men, it graduated approximately 20 percent of the nation’s black physicians and more than 10 percent of black attorneys, creating a powerful alumni network. Dr. Nathan F. Mossell, the first African American to earn a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and founder of Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, was an 1879 graduate.

General Conference of the AME Church. Endowment Day. Cincinnati, 1891.

Churches and charitable organizations often held endowment days, or annual fundraising drives. Founded in 1856 to educate African American youth, Wilberforce University was purchased by the AME Church in 1863. Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne served as its first president, making it the only black-run institution of higher education in the country. Although Wilberforce received some funds from the AME Church, it also depended upon private donations for its operating budget. In 1891, Philadelphia churches contributed the second highest amount among regional AME congregations.

House of the Holy Child. Donation Day. Philadelphia, 1890s. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The House of the Holy Child, founded in 1896, was a Philadelphia orphanage for African American children. Although loosely affiliated with the Episcopal Church, the institution was responsible for its own funding, some of which it received from the black community. Events such as a donation and endowment days mobilized fundraising.

View of the Department for Colored Children of the House of Refuge. Philadelphia: P.S. Duval & Son Lith., 1858. Gift of Clarence Wolf.

Concert program for the Girls Colored Department of House of Refuge. Philadelphia, 1885. Gift of Cordelia H. Brown, Lillie V. Dickerson, Mary Hinkson Jackson, and Georgine E. Willis in honor of Phil Lapsansky.

Concert program for the Boys Colored Department of the House of Refuge. Philadelphia, 1885. Gift of Cordelia H. Brown, Lillie V. Dickerson, Mary Hinkson Jackson, and Georgine E. Willis in honor of Phil Lapsansky.

As in other public institutions in the North, segregation was often applied inconsistently within prisons. In Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary and the Moyamensing Prison city jail were not segregated. However, the House of Refuge (pictured on the wall above) was a juvenile detention center divided along racial lines. House of Refuge inmates served court sentences for crimes, but its population also included children defined as incorrigible by parents or guardians. Charitably minded African Americans tried to support incarcerated black youth through moral example and recreational activities.

Various church concert programs. Gift of Cordelia H. Brown, Lillie V. Dickerson, Mary Hinkson Jackson, and Georgine E. Willis in honor of Phil Lapsansky.

Churches were an important center for African American social life and recreation in Philadelphia. With most black Philadelphians residing in predominantly black neighborhoods in the late 19th century, churches were usually within walking distance from home and were often among the only black-controlled spaces large enough for masses to congregate. Unlike in many white churches, musical and theatrical performances were compatible with black religious traditions. Many of the events documented here, such as the Star Concerts, also functioned as fundraisers for churches and their auxiliary groups, drawing large audiences by mixing local talent with famous touring stars.

Quaker City Circle. Closing Exercises. Philadelphia, 1883. Gift of Cordelia H. Brown, Lillie V. Dickerson, Mary Hinkson Jackson, and Georgine E. Willis in honor of Phil Lapsansky.

The Quaker City Association, along with its sister group, the Ladies’ Quaker City Association, was an exclusive benefit association for African Americans native to Philadelphia. As with other mutual and beneficial societies, members of the Quaker City Association contributed money to a pool, which was then distributed to members in need. The association reportedly refused membership to Southern blacks, causing tension within the city’s black community. The association’s closed balls were not only fundraisers but also served to connect members and draw class distinctions.

Bachelors of Philadelphia. Philadelphia, 1897. Gift of Cordelia H. Brown, Lillie V. Dickerson, Mary Hinkson Jackson, and Georgine E. Willis in honor of Phil Lapsansky.

The Bachelor-Benedict Social Club was made up of wealthy African American families. Membership helped delineate blacks of a certain class who had lived in Philadelphia prior to the Civil War. The club held annual debutante balls, which were major social events. The club also had branches in other parts of the country with sizeable numbers of affluent African Americans, including New York, Washington, DC, and Indianapolis.