One-hundred-year-old Rebecca Miller died this day, September 23rd, in 1847 of “old age.” The 1837 African American Census shows that she was a widow and worked as a laundress. Ms. Miller was freeborn and worshipped at Bethel A.M.E. Church. There is no indication, from surviving records, that Ms. Miller’s deceased spouse was interred at Bethel Burying Ground.
For many years, Ms. Miller lived in the rear of #3 Gray’s Alley near 2nd and Walnut. The building was the business address of Samuel Moss and Son, a very prosperous import business. Ms. Miller lived in the back of this building in a converted horse stall or pig pen with dirt floors. Ms. Miller is not listed by name in the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. However, an educated guess puts her sharing a 10′ x 10′ room at #3 Gray’s Alley with Ms. Anna Brown who was employed as a domestic. It appears that, with the addition of Ms. Brown, Ms. Miller started residing in the building after it had been transformed into a tenement. The 1847 Census shows that the women paid $1.45 a month in rent for their room – that was probably more than Ms. Brown earned in a week. There is no evidence that Ms. Miller was still employed at the time of her death.
Rebecca Miller was born in Philadelphia in 1747, forty-two years before George Washington was sworn in as president of the new United States of America. To understand what Ms. Miller experienced is unfathomable. In 1763, when she was twenty-six-years-old, did she see or smell the slave ship Africa with its cargo of one-hundred kidnapped Black men, women, and children from the coast of Guinea sail up the Delaware River? Slaver Thomas Riche of Philadelphia would yearly “import” a quantity of rum, Madeira, sugar, and humans. *
In 1806, when she was sixty-nine years old, did she see the twelve-year-old enslaved Black boy that was “lightly dressed and barefoot” walking in Philadelphia with a locked iron collar around his neck “and from each side of it an iron bow passed over his head?” Did their eyes meet? As a child, did she pass John Coats’ brickyard in the Northern Liberties District and see all the enslaved Black men locked in iron collars with shackles to keep them from escaping? She surely witnessed the slave auctions at the London Coffee House, only several blocks from her home.**
Rebecca Miller, in her 101st year, died on a late September day in 1847 and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The day started out chilly and foggy but, as the day went on, the sun came out and the temperature rose to a comfortable seventy-four degrees.
*Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath by G. Nash and J. Soderlund, p. 26; Pennsylvania Journal, 4 Oct 1764.
**In 1761-1762, the colonial government of Pennsylvania decided to levy a duty on all kidnapped Africans coming into Port Philadelphia. This was done to stymie the trade. To avoid the extra cost, the slave traders would unload their human cargo in Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Those who desired to buy the Africans would travel across and then transport the men, women, and children by ferry to Philadelphia’s slave market. In doing this, they would incur the duty themselves. (Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave by Elizabeth Donnon, vol. III, pp. 453-455.)