Eighty-year-old Sylvia Benson died this date, August 2nd, in 1841 of Breast Cancer and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. A widow, Ms. Benson was characterized as a “gentlewoman” in the 1840 Philadelphia City Directory. The 1837 Philadelphia African American Census reports her occupation as a washwoman. The Census listed another woman living with Ms. Benson who also worked as a washwoman. Both were not natives of Pennsylvania.
Ms. Benson stated in the Census that she was formerly enslaved and her husband “bought” her freedom for $200. I don’t have the words.
The red arrow indicates the location of Ms. Benson’s home at #96 Gaskill Street. The red pin illustrates the location and the proximity of Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard Streets. Ms. Benson reported to the 1837 census taker that she and her roommate both worshiped at Bethel Church. The women paid $4.15 a month in rent which is a considerable amount. Ms. Benson reported $155 of personal property which equates to approximately $4,475 in modern currency.
Gaskill Street was a narrow crowded street that was home to hundreds of Black men, women, and children of all ages. It was a thoroughfare of poverty, disease, and the working poor. To alleviate some of the child care burdens, the Infant School Society of Philadelphia established a daycare and a school for one hundred Black infants and children of Gaskill Street. Ms. Benson was a daily witness to this hustle and bustle on her busy street.
“Laundress,” New York Library Digital Collection.
Washing clothes and bedding required incredible physical strength and perseverance as captured in Dr. James McCune Smith’s prose. The Black New York City physician contributed the following (in part) to Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
Sylvia Benson was born in approximately 1761 and likely in the Delaware or Maryland colonies. Over the 19th century, Philadelphia was the journey’s end for a significant number of recently liberated Black women and men. Sadly, I could not find any information on her spouse or possible children.
Sylvia Benson died on a day where the temperature rose to 82° by midday. The day started out clear but turned cloudy by early evening. She was buried, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.