The late autumn wind began to bite during the 1838 Black Metropolis walking tour last year, but historian Michiko Quinones warmed the 10 participants with stories of riches, a riot and secret dealings in Philly’s antebellum Black community.
“Some 20,000 Black people lived in Philadelphia in the late 1830s,” Quinones said. “The 1838 census showed that their property had an aggregate value of $40 million [in today’s dollars].”
Quinones and Morgan Lloyd, a historian and curator, first presented the new walking tour as members of the Black Docents Collective, a group that started in response to the isolation of the pandemic. The collective’s approach and the tour that threads through cobblestone alleyways have resulted in a look at little-known facets of Philadelphia’s Black history.
“Most of us were volunteer guides at the African American Museum in Philadelphia [AAMP],” says Richard White, president of the collective, which currently has nine members. “When AAMP closed during the pandemic, we wanted to keep getting together to bring the city’s Black history to light. We’re historians, we’re griots,” says White, referring to African storytellers who preserve a people’s oral tradition. “We don’t necessarily have degrees in Black history, but it’s our passion. We’ve read books, traveled to Africa, done archival research, collaborated with scholars and listened to oral histories. We bring that knowledge to bear.”
If Black Philadelphians learn about the accomplishments of our ancestors, we can draw on that knowledge to face our struggles today.”
— Richard White, president of the Black Docents Collective
The docents seek “to educate, empower and heal the Black community by celebrating its history, culture and African values,” the collective’s mission statement says.
“If Black Philadelphians learn about the accomplishments of our ancestors, we can draw on that knowledge to face our struggles today,” White said.
The walking tour tells stories of Black residents who lived between 12th Street and the waterfront and from Locust Street to Catharine Street.
The tour began at 224 S. 12th Street, former home of brave free-born abolitionist and businessman William Still (1821–1902). An Underground Railroad agent, Still took a huge risk in keeping records of fugitives he helped in Philadelphia — an illegal activity — so that family members could find one another later. In the course of his work, Still was reunited with his brother, Peter, kidnapped into slavery years earlier, when Peter’s flight to freedom took him through the city, Quinones explained. Quinones also mentioned that William Still was said to have hidden his records about fugitives in a graveyard so that the information wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Known for publishing “The Underground Railroad Records” in 1872, Still also published “A Brief Narrative of the Struggle for the Rights of Colored People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars” in 1867.
The 1838 Black Metropolis tour got its name and focus from the 1838 census commissioned by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and carried out by Charles Gardner, pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church, and society member Benjamin Bacon, Quinones said. In 1838, Black men in Pennsylvania found their right to vote threatened, she explained. The 1838 census aimed to prove that Black Philadelphians worked hard, held property and provided for their own poor folk and therefore should not be stripped of the right to vote. (Community leaders involved in trying to save the vote included sailmaker James Forten, his children and Robert Purvis, Forten’s son-in-law, all featured in “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia,” an exhibit at the Museum of the American Revolution through November 26, 2023.)
“The push to disenfranchise Black men came about because they voted in high numbers,” Richard White said. “Their votes made the difference in an election in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. Legislators in Harrisburg feared that power.”
The bid to save their vote failed, but it resulted in an invaluable fact-packed document that provides the foundation of the walking tour.
During the tour, Quinones tossed in juicy tidbits about whites living in the area. She pointed out the Pennsylvania State Historical Marker at 258 S. 9th Street, one-time home of Joseph Bonaparte (1766–1844), the older brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. “Frenchmen, including Stephen Girard, used to party here,” Quinones said. Girard reaped a fortune in the illegal opium trade with China, she added.
Quinones ended the tour where the home of Hester “Hetty” Reckless (1779–1881) once stood. Originally enslaved in Salem, New Jersey, Reckless fled with her daughter after the wife of her enslaver, Colonel Johnson, reportedly knocked out Reckless’s front teeth with a broomstick. Reckless slipped away in a stagecoach and eventually settled in Philadelphia. In 1844, she established the Moral Reform Retreat for Black Women at 7th and Lombard Streets.
“This was a shelter [run] by a Black woman for Black women,” Quinones said. Reckless wanted to protect the women from both slavery and sexual exploitation.
Quinones and Lloyd started a nonprofit, 1838 Black Metropolis, in April to hone in on people and events cited in the 1838 census.
The black docents collective provides a treasure trove of Black history on its website, blackdocents.com. For Juneteenth 2022, for example, members showcased seven Black micro-museums in individual YouTube sketches.
“Each museum shows a different aspect of Black history and culture,” White said.
The videos cover sites like the Richard Allen Museum, on the lower level of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 419 S. 6th Street, the nation’s oldest A.M.E. house of worship. The museum has artifacts like Allen’s Bible and houses the archives of “The Christian Recorder,” the oldest continuously published Black newspaper in the country.
The museum mini-series also has useful incidental details. For instance, the Peter Mott House, a two-story farmhouse in Lawnside, New Jersey, once sheltered fugitives from slavery. The 1844 building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, hosts an annual weeklong Underground Railroad day camp for children.
The website also features short presentations on turning points for Philly’s African Americans, like the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) strike of 1944. On August 1 of that year, during World War II, the PTC promoted eight Black men from menial jobs to trolley motormen, a position previously reserved for whites. Some 4,500 white workers went on strike, crippling the city’s buses and subways in addition to the production of war materials because people couldn’t get to work. When negotiations with the strikers failed, President Roosevelt sent in 5,000 troops armed to the teeth who set up camp in Fairmount Park. The soldiers rode the trolleys to protect passengers and PTC employees who’d returned to work. The strike ended when authorities threatened to revoke strikers’ draft deferment. By August 17, the soldiers left Philadelphia. Two months later, the number of Black motormen had doubled.
The collective’s website also offers in-depth discussions of topics like Kwanzaa, a holiday observed from December 26 to January 1. Kwanzaa celebrates seven values of African culture: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
“In my talks I relate those principles to Philadelphia’s Black history,” White said. “For example, I relate cooperative economics to the 19th-century Black mutual aid societies and the savings and loan associations that some churches had,” said White, who gives presentations at churches and other community groups.
“We recognize that we have to create relationships with schools and other organizations,” White said. “Our partnerships with the Center for Black Educator Development helps us reach young people. We’re also partnering with a group at [the University of Pennsylvania] and with Swarthmore College. Our ultimate goal is for Black Philadelphians to take control of our own historical narrative.”
To learn more or join the Black Docents Collective, visit blackdocents.com. To book a tour with 1838 Black Metropolis, which covers eight blocks and lasts about an hour, visit 1838blackmetropolis.com.