The African American community in Philadelphia was constantly under the threat of violence from the racist mobs that controlled the city. The year 1853 was a particularly ugly time in the northern districts of the city and the county. The deadly assaults on Black men walking alone in these areas started a couple weeks before the 4th of July and continued through the rest of the year. The white-owned newspapers even lamented about the unprovoked brutal physical attacks in the Northern Liberties, Fairmount and Spring Garden sections of the county.
In October of that year, a funeral procession started out from the Northern Liberties District and was headed for the Bethel Burying Ground to inter an honored African American citizen, Mr. James Johnson Richmond. The procession was led by Mr. Richmond’s fellow Masons who carried the coffin on their shoulders for twelve miles to the cemetery followed by family and friends. The cortège was led by a marching band and the Masons in their formal uniforms followed by a “long line” of family and friends.
The procession was harassed all along the eleven-mile route and the situation quickly escalated into a running battle between the mourners and the white mob. A mile from the cemetery the gauntlet worsens with the arrival of more gang members at 6th and Chestnut Street.
The latter half of 1853 was not only a time of heightening fears among whites in Philadelphia but throughout the country. In May the telegraph wires crackled with the breaking news that a large army of Black men, free and enslaved, were heading toward New Orleans to riot, rape, and pillage. The newspapers told the story of “half-crazed negroes” leading a “negro insurrection.” These rebels were goated on by abolitionists who were “depraved whites” creating a “negro mania.” Militias supposedly were called to arms to stop the wild horde. There was one problem. It never happened. There was no Black army, no insurgency and no army was rushing to the area. But that didn’t stop newspapers nationwide from speculating on the possible atrocities. What the hoax accomplished was the increase in tensions in the southern plantations and in the northern cities.
In the end, Mr. James Richmond, a waiter, lately of 417 N. 4th Street was laid to rest by his battered and bruised family and friends. But the threat of violence wouldn’t stop the long funeral procession from coming – day after day and week after week.