The Free Black Community
The Free Black Community
Work and Community. Free blacks gravitated to the Northern cities looking for work and a community. In 1790 the North was home to only 5.7 percent of the total black population of the colonies but harbored nearly one-half of the free black population. In New York and other cities a large slave and free-black population existed side by side and mingled in the streets on a daily basis, along with white servants and workers. Free blacks found sporadic employment as laborers and tradesmen: wagon drivers, construction workers, tailors, shoemakers, and sailors.
Churches. Though few free blacks prospered in the Northern cities, they did find some degree of freedom, and they deeply treasured the community life they built there. Churches were an important gathering place, and in the mid 1700s blacks often worshipped with white congregations; African Americans did not establish their own congregations with their own ministers until the 1790s. However, they were making considerable progress toward these goals in the 1770s and 1780s. Philadelphia in particular was a center of black Christianity: many free blacks who obtained their freedom in the Chesapeake region came to Philadelphia and became members of Methodist and Baptist congregations. In the South during the great religious revivals of the mid 1700s blacks and whites worshipped together on surprisingly friendly and equal terms. In the North urban churches had many wealthy patrons who objected to the presence of blacks; they often relegated them to balconies or the back of the church even though African societies within the churches raised funds for maintenance and ministers’ salaries.
Absalom Jones . Absalom Jones was one of the first black Methodist preachers in this era before black churches. Born a slave in Delaware, he was brought by his master to Philadelphia in the 1760s to work in a store. A clerk taught him how to write, and he studied at Quaker Anthony Benezet’s school for blacks. Purchasing his freedom in 1768, he became a lay preacher in the Methodist Church. Along with Richard Allen, another early black preacher, Jones established an informal but tightly knit black community within the white church. From such humble beginnings Philadelphia became a center of black religious and social life and was a beacon to Southern slaves until the abolition of slavery, nearly one hundred years later.
“Negro Election Days.” By no means were all African Americans Christians, and since many were not even American born, the social life in black communities incorporated elements of Christianity, secular customs, and African religion and ritual. The growing direct importation of African-born slaves around mid century infused black life with renewed African traditions. Blacks had their own holidays and celebrations that paralleled those of whites but incorporated features unique to black life. So-called Negro Election Days were common in Northern locales, particularly where many in the black population were African born. Beginning as early as 1741 blacks in several towns in the North, particularly in New England, began to hold elaborate election-day ceremonies, usually in May or June, following the wake of the General Election Day of New England whites. In a series of parades, games, dinners, dances, and other celebrations the black community elected governors, kings, and other officials. In the Newport election parade “all the various languages of Africa, mixed with broken... English, filled the air accompanied with music of the fiddle, tambourine, the banjo, drum, etc.” The actual election procedures varied, sometimes taking the form of a voice vote or caucus, but at other times depending on footraces or tests of strength between candidates. The actual authority of these officials was unclear, and was, in any case, largely ignored by whites. But the kings and governors often took on the role of informal spokesman among blacks, free and slave. Whites tolerated the festivities as a means for the blacks to let off steam, and while they may have been concerned that blacks organizing politically might pose a threat, often the black officials used their positions to complement white politics. During the Revolution several governors served with the Patriot army, and one of them, Guy Watson of Rhode Island, was a leading figure in the capture of British general Richard Prescott in Newport in 1777. In other cases the elected officials were figures of fun and self-parody: members of the community elected the king and then were free to verbally abuse and ridicule him in any manner they wished. These rituals had strong echoes of West African ceremonies, particularly the Apo ceremony of the Ashanti tribe of Ghana. The Election Days also encompassed some of the same sorts of revelry and parades as white election-day celebrations, and they evolved at about the same time in American history. Negro Election Day survived well into the mid nineteenth century until the time when African Americans had political rights recognized by the larger society.
Philip S. Foner, History of Black Americans: Volume I, From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975);
Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988);
Joseph P. Reidy, “Negro Election Day and Black Community Life in New England, 1750-1860,” Marxist Perspectives, 1 (Fall 1978): 102-117;
Jessie C. Smith and Carrell P. Horton, eds., Historical Statistics of Black America (Detroit: Gale Research, 1995);
Melvin Wade, “Shining in Borrowed Plumage: Affirmation of Community in the Black Coronation Festivals of New England, ca. 1750-1850,” Western Folklore, 40 (July 1981): 171-182.