The eighteen-month-old son of William Blake died this date, May 26th, in 1849 of convulsions and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The child’s first name was not recorded. According to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census, Mr. Blake worked in a store that sold stoves located on 12th Street below Pine Street. Ms. Blake (unnamed) was employed as a laundress. There were a total of five in the family with one female child 15 years old or younger working as a cook, earning $2 a week. The fifth family member was identified only as “under 50.” They all lived in one room at 54 Currant Alley for which they paid $7.20 a month.
Currant Alley was a two-city-block long narrow thoroughfare that historian Roger Lane considered “one of the worst [streets] in Philadelphia.”* Ninety-six Black families lived in the densely packed alley with a staggering total of three hundred twenty-one family members, according to the 1847 Census. The Census also showed that the Currant Alley adults were solidly working class, having a wide range of laboring and domestic jobs to which African American men and women were restricted.
On the day that the Blakes buried their child at Bethel Burying Ground, the dawn broke cool and overcast. During the day, the temperature never got above 59 degrees.
* “William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and ours . . .”
Thirty-six-year-old Eliza Dorsey died this date, May 22nd, in 1848 due to “Spasm of the Glottis” and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground on May 24th. She was a single woman who provided guardianship to three orphans – a boy and two girls – according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. The children were “not taken care of by [their] parents” and Ms. Dorsey voluntarily took the children into her home. Ms. Dorsey was a laundress washing and ironing clothes and reported in 1847 that she earned $15 a month for her efforts. The family of four lived in one room in a building around the corner from Bethel Burying Ground, on “Fourth Street below Queen Street” for which Ms. Dorsey paid $7.50 a month in rent. The children were educated at Mrs. Emeline Higgins private school for African American children in Raspberry Alley. The school had been established for eight years in 1848.
At the time of Ms. Dorsey’s death, one Black family in four was headed by a female in Philadelphia. Currently, it is estimated to be over double that at sixty-eight percent nationally.
Ms. Dorsey suffocated to death, likely from severe asthma. There is no reason given as to why a physician didn’t visit the corpse of Ms. Dorsey until two days after her death. I could find no documents reporting what happened to the children in her care.
One-hundred five-year-old Lydia Ann Garrison died this date, May 16th, in 1846 of “old age” and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. She had led a long life without leaving anything but a small documented trail. Ms. Garrison or her spouse Robin, who predeceased her, are not recorded in any local or federal censuses. They were not reported in any city directories that I could locate.
According to the Pennsylvania Abolition Act of 1780, if you were Black and lived in Pennsylvania before 1780, you remained enslaved. Ms. Garrison was already at least 40 years of age at that time. According to the law, your children would be enslaved until the age of twenty-eight. Therefore, it was only after 1810 that a substantial community of free Blacks gathered in Philadelphia.
Out of surviving records, Ms. Garrison was not the oldest person buried at Bethel Burying Ground. There were two women interred who were older – one a 110-year-old and another 113 years of age.
Surviving city death certificates do not show any family members of Ms. Garrison buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Lydia Ann Garrison was interred on a warm day (68°) in May. It can be assumed she was of strong character and spirit.
Forty-three-year-old Mary Ann Miller died this date, May 8th in 1843, of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Ms. Miller was a dressmaker, according to the 1838 “Register of the Trades of Colored People in the City of Philadelphia and the Districts.” She worked out of her home at the corner of #1 Gray’s Alley and 2nd Street, near the Delaware River docks and the center of the city’s import/export business.
The 1837 Philadelphia African American Census reported that eighty-two Black women made their living by dressmaking at the artisan level.
Gray’s Alley was a small narrow alleyway that contained twenty-five African American families totaling seventy-three individuals, according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. The crowded underventilated lodgings were the perfect environment for the disease that killed Mary Ann Miller. The male members of the families on Gray’s Alley were laborers, usually working as porters at the Delaware docks, and the female family members were laundresses or domestics who worked in the homes of the wealthy merchants nearby. Families would live in one room in the two and three-storied brick homes that were built before the Revolution. The rooms were commonly 10’x10′ for which the rent was around $1 – $2 a week.
Ms. Miller would have lived through the thirteen years of mob violence against Philadelphia’s people of color prior to her death. In 1842, the year before she died, there was a three-day riot in August that saw white mobs loot and burn Black homes, churches and public buildings. Black men and women were assaulted and forced to flee the city. There was never an accurate accounting of murdered African Americans. No whites were held significantly accountable. The mayor criticized the African Americans of the city for being provocative by demanding their civil rights.
Fifty-year-old Sarah Medad Westwood died this date, April 5th, in 1853 of a stroke (Apoplexy) and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Her spouse, Keeling Westwood, worked as a confectioner earning $30 a month. A confectioner was a person selling and/or making candy or other sweets. Ms. Westwood was employed as a “baker,” according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. It appears that one of the older children worked in a store for $4 a week which was a good wage. It appears from that Census that the Westwoods had four children, two of whom were younger than two-years of age and two of whom were between two to fifteen years of age. Three were attending the Shiloh Baptist Church Infant School at South and Clifton Streets, now far from the Westwood home in Osborn’s Court, near 8th and Spruce. The photograph below is what the church infant school looks like currently. It is now an African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Ms. Westwood was born in Accomack County, Virginia in 1803 to Irving and Betty Medad. The 1820 Federal Census lists Ms. Betty Medad as a single free Black woman. Mr. Medad is not listed in the Census. It appears he was deceased prior to 1820. Accomack County, Virginia was a rarity in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Being located on the Eastern Shore, it did not have an agriculture economy that required the amount of slave labor that the plantations in the rest of the state required. In addition, the spread of Methodism and the influence of Quakerism in the county, plus the powerful personalities of several large landowners, created a unique social environment that fostered the emancipation of enslaved Black men and women. (Race and Liberty in the New Nation, pp. 61-62 by Eva Sheppard Wolf)
The Westwoods lived on a narrow back alley in one room for which they paid $2-$4 a week. Osborn’s Court was typical for the era with the water spigot and privy outdoors. Street cleaning was infrequent, if at all, and, consequently, trash, garbage, ash and animal waste would form piles that would block gutters and force rainwater back in the cellars. Interestingly, Osborn’s Court had a long history of one of the more notorious houses of prostitution in that area of the city. There are numerous newspaper reports over the era of brawls between the ladies and their clients. The more violent encounters were between the ladies themselves. All this in the shadow of a large Protestant Church!
Osborn’s Court ran behind St. Andrew’s Protestant Episcopal Church at 250 S. 8th Street.
Thirty-five-year-old Sarah Golden died this date, April 30th, in 1853 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. She worked as a laundress earning $50 a year, according to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census. Fifty dollars in the year 1847 is equivalent in purchasing power to $1,506.80 in 2018.
Ms. Golden was married to Samuel Golden who was employed as a waiter and, at one point, worked part-time in a stove store. The death of Ms. Golden left three children motherless – Joseph (16 y/o), Emeline (8) and Isabella (5), according to the 1850 Federal Census. The family moved a good deal. They lived in Atkinson Court, Smith’s Court and Hurst Street – all locations where the residents lived in extreme poverty and perfect environments for Tuberculosis to spread. The entire family likely would have lived in a 9’x9′ room for which they paid approximately $5 a month.
Mr. and Ms. Golden sent their children to local schools that were established by private institutions to educate Black children and, according to the 1847 Census, three members of the family regularly attended church services. A surviving Philadelphia Board of Health death certificate reports that Sarah’s son Joseph died at 25 years of age of a stroke while employed as a “mariner.”
An elderly Black man dying of Consumption (Tuberculosis ) living in the cellar of a tenement. “Neglected Neighborhoods,” p. 279. Chas. F. Weeler is the author.