Dr. Belfast Burton died this date, February 27th, in 1849 from a stroke and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. At the time of his death, he was residing at Buckley Street, now Cypress Street, between 5th and 6th Streets and Spruce and Pine Streets in the Cedar Section of the city.
Belfast Burton was born enslaved in the township of Indian River Hundred, Sussex County, Delaware in 1775. In the spring of 1798 his freedom was purchased by friends and was bound to Dr. Charles Caldwell as an indentured servant. It was not long before the well-respected physician became aware of Mr. Burton’s capacity and thirst for knowledge. Dr. Caldwell provided two years of education with both English and French tutors. Starting out with only “a bare acquaintance with the English alphabet,” Burton excelled and finished his tutelage with a high proficiency in math and reading. In addition, he was able to read French and converse in the language in such a way that he was able to teach it to others and was often “taken as being French.”
Dr. Caldwell was so satisfied with his progress that he believed Burton to be “qualified for the attainment of medical knowledge” and voided his indenture contract on the condition that Burton “commence immediately the study of medicine, and devote to it faithfully and intensely his time and powers.” Caldwell made arrangements for Burton to attend medical lectures at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. But “for reasons which to me were never satisfactory, such obstacles thrown his way as finally defeated him his laudable intentions,” states Dr. Caldwell. The first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School would be 81 years later in 1882.
Dr. Burton was “mortified” at the offense and declared that he wanted nothing more to do with the medical profession. However, with the support of Dr. Caldwell and others he refocused his attention to complete his apprenticeship under his mentor. Burton finished his “pupilage” with Caldwell and threw himself into his practice and was characterized by Dr. Caldwell as being “exemplary” in his devotion to his work and his patients, a “credit to his race” and “well-qualified to be useful to mankind . . . “* It was now 1800 or 1801.
Dr. Julie Winch observes that “Belfast Burton emigrated to Haiti in 1825 where he apparently did well, but he eventually returned to Philadelphia. He was a delegate to the convention of 1830 and 1831 having been admitted to the 1830 meeting only after an acrimonious exchange with Bishop Allen who apparently saw the redoubtable Burton as a rival in the struggle for influence within the African-American community. For three decades, Belfast Burton was a highly respected member of St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church, but towards the end of his life he converted to Methodism and joined the congregation of Mother Bethel.” (The Elite of Our People: Joseph Willson’s Sketches of Black Upper-Class Life in Antebellum Philadelphia, p. 134.)
Dr. Burton was a founding member of the Union Society that was established in 1810 with the mission of improving the “conditions of coloured people.” He was close friends with the Rev. Absolom Jones and was the executor of his will after his death in 1818. (See Ancestry.com)
*In the May 5, 1827 edition of The Ariel: A Literary Gazette, published in Philadelphia, there were several letters published that included one from a member of a long established Philadelphia family (Bonsall), a prominent Philadelphia businessman (Abercombie), a clergyman’s wife and Dr. Caldwell himself. The letters documented Burton’s professional skills with a long list of satisfied patients and were written in the hope of acting as “a tribute of justice due to Dr. Burton.” For the full document see – http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101065266478;view=1up;seq=1.