On July 22nd in 1814, John Richardson lost a fifteen-month-old child, gender and name unknown. He or she died from swelling of the brain caused by an unknown disease. Conditions such as kidney disease, heart disease, and Meningitis were common causes for the brain to swell in size. Philadelphia Board of Health Records reveal that the Richardson child was one of seventy-seven children to die with that diagnosis between 1813 and 1814.
According to the 1814 Philadelphia City Directory, Mr. Richardson was employed as a “woodsawyer.” He likely worked in one of the city lumberyards, such as Buntings & Watson’s lumber yard that was located only several blocks away from his home at Shippen Street near 7th in the Moyamensing District of the County. (1)
Given the early (1814) date of the child’s death, the mother’s name is not known. History tells us that she was likely self-employed as a laundress or seamstress. Geographically, they lived on the fringe of the county’s population. Only several years earlier, the neighborhood was a pasture.
In 1813, African Americans in Philadelphia were put on official notice that the white citizens and their political representatives wanted apartheid to be the law of the land. At the urging of the mayor and other Philadelphia politicians, the state senate took up bills that if passed would have made it legal to force all free Black men and women to be registered and carry documents on their person to prove it. It also was proposed that no more Blacks be allowed to enter the city and that the existing residents be taxed to pay for the cost of caring for indigent Blacks. The white officials estimated that there were over 4,000 fugitives from southern slave states. (2)
The Quakers no longer had any political influence in Philadelphia. The political group that succeeded them wanted the city turned into a slave state that would control every aspect of African American lives.
From the little we know about John Richardson, he lived the life of most Black men in early 19th Century Philadelphia. He was a husband, father, laborer, and likely a Christian who worshipped at Rev. Richard Allen’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 6th and Lombard Streets. This made him a very likely candidate for a member of the “Black Warriors.”
Amid all of that was happening with the proposed racist legislation, the War of 1812 with the British was in full fury. The English fleet was sailing north up the eastern seaboard taking coastal cities one after the other. It appeared that Philadelphia was next. In late August of 1814, the U.S. Army Engineers urgently needed to build a fortification up on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in an area known as Grays Ferry. From there, the cannons of the army would have a clear shot at the large ships of the British navy as they sailed up the river.
The Army started using white men as laborers, but that became a problem when it became apparent the majority were not fit enough to handle the heat and humidity. Military officers approached Reverends Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to rally the Black community to help with the construction project. Over a thousand Black men answered the call and gathered at the State House Yard, now known as Independence Mall. From there, they marched to Grays Ferry and worked without stopping for two days straight until the job was accomplished. African American historian Martin R. Delany called these men the “Black Warriors” of Philadelphia. Was Mr. John Richardson one of the “Warriors?” Very likely.
The Richardson baby succumbed to his or her illness in late July and was buried with dignity at Bethel Burying Ground.
(1) I have been able to track Mr. Richardson through city directories up to 1822. The family moved to German Street sometime between 1817 and 1818. German Street is now Fitzgerald Street.
(2) Edward R. Turner, The Negroe in Pennsylvania (1911), p. 229-230.
(3) Martin R. Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, p. 75.