Seventy-two-year-old Mr. Hazael Hughes died this date, July 29th, in 1840 at twenty minutes past nine o’clock in the morning. The official cause of death was dyspepsia or indigestion. This is only a symptom, not a cause. An ulcer or stomach cancer could have been the cause of the symptoms. The 1837 Philadelphia African American Census recorded that Mr. and Ms. Hughes were the heads of a family that included four additional members. The Census does not state the relationship or ages of these family members. Ms. Hughes’ first name was not reported. Mr. Hughes’ first name (Hazael) is taken from the Old Testament.
Out of the six family members, only one was born in Pennsylvania. The 1848 Philadelphia African American Census reports that Mr. and Ms. Hughes were formally enslaved and were manumitted. In the second half of the 1830s, Mr. Hughes was employed as a clothes dealer and his spouse as a shopkeeper. By the latter part of the 1840s, they worked as a laborer and a laundress, according to the 1848 Census. The Hughes may have been employed at Shedaker’s Dry Good Store, located only yards away from their home. The Hughes family lived in a room at 186 South 4th Street for which they paid $3.33 in 1837. It was double that amount by 1848. The 1837 rent was the equivalent of a week’s take-home pay, increasing to two weeks pay by 1848. Their residence was only a block away from Independence Mall.
This structure supposedly stood for the liberty of all but, in reality, it stood for the rights of white males. Mr. Hughes likely would walk by the Hall on a daily basis and be starkly reminded that he, as a Black man, could not vote in Pennsylvania. In 1838, the Pennsylvania Senate voted 77 to 45 to amend the state’s constitution, officially disenfranchising the Black man. After this time, no African Americans voted in Pennsylvania until after the Civil War. And, only then, at the risk of being murdered or beaten. The Pennsylvania Constitution was not changed until 1873. And women, white or Black, could still not vote.
The reasons given by the politicians for the constitutional amendment were:
- Blacks were less than human
- They were a degraded being
- They were lawless and idle
- Blacks filled the jails and the poorhouses
- To allow Blacks to vote would do irreparable injury to Pennsylvania
- Giving Black Pennsylvanians the right to vote would attract hordes of lawless Blacks to invade the state.
This action by the state’s politicians emboldened racist groups across the state, resulting in a dramatic increase in organized deadly violence against African American citizens. Two years before Hazael Hughes died, he witnessed one of the most brutal and fierce attacks by white mobs on the Black community with the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, Black churches, and homes.
The Hughes family interred their patriarch on a warm summer day with the temperature reaching 85 degrees by 2 o’clock.