Fifty-eight-year-old Rachel Dawson died this date, May 3rd, in 1839 of Tuberculosis (Consumption) and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. According to the 1838 Philadelphia African American Census, Ms. Dawson was employed as “own w,” which I believe means “own work.” Ms. Dawson and her husband appear to have owned a tenement building with a large number of families renting rooms. I believe her work was managing the family business.
The 1838 Census is the only information I could find on the family. It was a family of four. Three adults and a child. The adults were not born in Pennsylvania and it appears the child was native to the state. At least two of the adults were formerly enslaved. One was manumitted and the other’s freedom was purchased for $250 or approximately $8,300 in modern currency.
Mr. Dawson’s age is unknown. He was employed as a “glass paper” maker. This material was a sandpaper-like material. Instead of being embedded with sand, it was embedded with finely grounded glass. It was grueling, dirty, dangerous work. Twelve-hour shifts were common with men toiling amid clouds of fine sticky glass dust clogging the lungs.
The Dawsons owned their home on Paper Alley in the center of the city near what is now Philadelphia’s City Hall. The value of their building was reported at $12,600 or approximately $331,600 in modern currency. The balance of their mortgage was $3,300 or approximately $86,900. This is a highly unusual situation, especially given this is a Black blue-collar working family.
I was not able to find any information on the Dawson family after the death of Ms. Dawson. It could mean they left Philadelphia for somewhere safer. A year before the death of Ms. Dawson, an organized white mob burned down a hall that was hosting a revolutionary meeting of Black and white men and women advocating for the end of slavery and equal rights for women. Pennsylvania Hall was destroyed along with damage to an orphanage for Black children and several Black churches. The Pennsylvania legislature had been moving to disenfranchise African-Americans in Pennsylvania for the last several years. Years of terror were just beginning. (1)
Rachel Dawson died on an early day in May and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The Dawson family attended services at Bethel A.M.E. Church, according to the 1838 Census.