Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Fragile Freedom

A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 212
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Fragile Freedom
    Book Description:

    This book is the first to chronicle the lives of African American women in the urban north during the early years of the republic.A Fragile Freedominvestigates how African American women in Philadelphia journeyed from enslavement to the precarious status of "free persons" in the decades leading up to the Civil War and examines comparable developments in the cities of New York and Boston.

    Erica Armstrong Dunbar argues that early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, where most African Americans were free, enacted a kind of rehearsal for the national emancipation that followed in the post-Civil War years. She explores the lives of the "regular" women of antebellum Philadelphia, the free black institutions that took root there, and the previously unrecognized importance of African American women to the history of American cities.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14506-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    By the 1830s Amy Matilda Cassey was a well-known member of Philadelphia’s African American elite. Cassey had grown up in New York, the daughter of a leading New York minister. She moved to Philadelphia, where she met and married a prominent barber, Joseph Cassey.¹ A member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and several other philanthropic organizations, Cassey kept a friendship album—one of only four created by black Philadelphians still in existence today. It is a rare object that allows entrance into the personal sphere of “the higher classes of colored society,” a social sphere whose inner life has...

  6. 1 Slavery and the “Holy Experiment”
    (pp. 8-25)

    Black Alice was born in Pennsylvania in 1686, just five years after William Penn received a charter for the “new world.” She lived for 116 years and recounted her life’s story shortly before her death. Early settlers in Pennsylvania knew Alice as a griot, or trusted storyteller, who recounted not only her own story but also the history of Philadelphia, as an enslaved woman of African descent.

    Her tale began with her parents, who were brought from Barbados aboard the shipIsabella;Alice was thus one of the earliest black settlers born in Philadelphia. She lived within the city’s limits...

  7. 2 Maneuvering Manumission in Philadelphia: African American Women and Indentured Servitude
    (pp. 26-47)

    In 1803, one year after Black Alice died, eight-year-old Mary Kerr indentured herself to Mary Lewis of Philadelphia. Kerr’s apprenticeship was to last a period of nine years and nine months, and she would thus achieve her freedom at the age of eighteen. Kerr’s indenture agreement notes that she was “a mulatress and illegitimate” and did “voluntarily and of her own free will and accord put herself apprentice to Mary Lewis.” According to the agreement, Lewis had raised this young girl from infancy “at her own expense” and in return for Kerr’s service, Lewis would instruct her in the “art,...

  8. 3 Creating Black Philadelphia: African American Women and Their Neighborhoods
    (pp. 48-69)

    The new century was the beginning of an important transition for African Americans in Philadelphia. Thousands worked in servitude well into the 1820s, but over several decades slavery became defunct. Philadelphia became a leading example of black freedom in the nation, and cities such as New York and Boston also extended liberty to African Americans. The times filled men and women with hope as well as disappointment. Emancipation, the first “rehearsal for Reconstruction,” encompassed the end of indentured servitude, the beginnings of black activism, and the birth of a strident abolition movement.¹ African Americans worked in earnest to take advantage...

  9. 4 Voices from the Margins: The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society 1833–1840
    (pp. 70-95)

    In 1840 Sarah Mapps Douglass, a well-respected African American teacher in Philadelphia, requested the formal separation of her small female academy from its parent organization, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS). Although the society is considered one of the first interracial women’s antislavery groups, most of its members were white. As antislavery organizations appeared to be less interested in black education by the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Douglass decided to withdraw her female academy from the control of the society. In a letter written to the PFASS Douglass expressed her gratitude for the two years of financial support...

  10. 5 Writing for Womanhood: African American Women and Print Culture
    (pp. 96-119)

    Print culture became a new and important vehicle in the fight to end slavery and in the development of free black communities throughout the North. The advent of black antislavery and religious newspapers such as theFreedom’s Journal,theLiberator,theNorth Star,and a host of other periodicals gave African American reformers access to public forums of debate. By the middle decades of the nineteenth century a generation of free African Americans had been formally educated and were prepared to fight slavery and inequality on both the local and national levels. Published writings helped to move local Philadelphians into...

  11. 6 A Mental and Moral Feast: Reading, Writing, and Sentimentality in Black Philadelphia
    (pp. 120-147)

    The mid-nineteenth century was perhaps one of the most complicated eras for African American men and women of the urban North. Although constantly faced with mounting inequalities and the persistent struggle to end the institution of slavery, African American men and women continued to redefine themselves as free people living in America.¹ A foundation of free African American religious organizations and educational facilities dating back to the late eighteenth century gave rise to a politically active black elite in cities such as Philadelphia. Not only did African American men and women struggle to free themselves from the vestiges of slavery,...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 148-150)

    The antebellum struggle for autonomy and equal treatment in black Philadelphia would continue throughout the 1850s up to the eve of the Civil War. The work and goals of abolition remained central to the lives of African American men and women. For the most part, black Philadelphians struggled to survive on their meager earnings as laundresses, hucksters, stevedores, and other types of laborers. Freedom was a reality for African Americans in Philadelphia, though civil rights and the benefits of citizenship were yet to be attained. In May 1854 Charlotte L. Forten began a journal that chronicled her life as a...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 151-174)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 175-188)
  15. Index
    (pp. 189-196)