Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth Cunningham died this date, March 26th, in 1850 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. She was a single woman who was employed as an in-service domestic, according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. Elizabeth lived with her widowed mother, Mary Cunningham, who was forty-five-years-old at the time of her daughter’s death. It appears that Mary was born enslaved in Maryland, according to the 1847 Census. She had been widowed since at least 1840-1841, as described in city directories.
Elizabeth and Mary Cunningham rented a room at #1 Cox Alley (red arrow above) for $2 a month which may have taken the women a couple of weeks to earn. There were not a lot of residences on Cox Alley. The majority of the structures were the back of businesses that fronted other streets.
In early October 1849, Elizabeth and Mary Cunningham endured a terrifying life-threatening experience that few of us can imagine. It was the third day of a major organized anti-Black riot by Irish gangs with the goal of running all Blacks out of the city of Philadelphia. The Cunninghams, from their home in Cox Alley, would have seen the towering flames and smelled the suffocating smoke from the torching of the California House, only three blocks away. The California House was a Black-owned tavern and hotel that posed a threat to Irish gang rule in that part of the Moyamensing District.
The murderous thugs set a wagon on fire and rammed it into the front of the hotel. Immediately, bullets and stones came flying from the upper windows down on the arsonists. The police and fire companies supposedly were driven away by the guns, knives, and clubs of the surging white crowd. With this, the Black community struck back and a crowd of Black men and women engaged in a running battle and fought with fists, sticks, and cobblestones.
During the battle, the terrorists cut gas lines in the hotel to speed up the blaze which had engulfed the upper floors of the hotel and adjoining buildings that included a Black church. The neighborhood was on fire. The bell atop Independence Hall began to “ring violently” and people throughout the city believed the city was “doomed.”
The fighting and fires lasted all night. The white mob put two fire companies “out of business.” Their equipment was destroyed and the firemen were seriously injured. With the city policemen overmatched, U.S. Army soldiers were eventually brought in to restore order. It helped that they brought two cannons with them. But the damage was already done. The official count was five dead and possibly hundreds injured. A Black neighborhood was in ashes and the Philadelphia Black community terrorized and put in fear of their lives – again. (1)
Elizabeth Cunningham died on a clear March day where the temperature rose to 42 degrees. Her mother buried her at Bethel Burying Ground.
(1) Evening Public Ledger, 10 August 1917.