Feb 14, 2018

Looking for Kingsessing’s Black History

by: Sharece Blakney

Whose stories get told, and who is doing the telling? As part of our Southwest Roots project with Bartram’s Garden, curator Aislinn Pentecost-Farren wanted to look deeper into the neighborhood’s history with race and class, and she wanted to make sure that people of color were able to tell these stories. She commissioned Sharece Blakney, a history graduate student at Rutgers–Camden, to dig into the archives and fill in gaps in the record—and to hold space throughout this process for personal stories and emotions. The result was Stories We Know, a forthcoming short publication on the history and long-lasting effects of slavery in West Philadelphia’s Kingsessing neighborhood, featuring essays from Blakney and others, and poems from local youth at Bartram’s Sankofa Community Farm. Halfway through Black History Month, we wanted to share an excerpt from Blakney’s complex historical research.

Excerpt from “Equally Free With Myself: Slavery, Manumission, and Indentured Servitude in Kingsessing Township, 1780–1850,” by Sharece Blakney 

The history of the Black community in Philadelphia has been documented; however, in-depth studies of individual neighborhoods are largely missing from historical scholarship: particularly the history of areas that are predominantly Black and filled with rich stories and long histories. Historical research of the Black community surrounding Bartram’s Garden reveals one community’s interracial collaborative efforts to improve the lives of people of color. Between 1780 and 1850, the Black community of the Kingsessing neighborhood outside the Garden experienced wealth, poverty, freedom, and enslavement. Three major concepts frequently appear in documents about the area: slavery, manumission, and indentured servitude. Manumission was a byproduct of slavery, and indentured servitude was an unfree status in a different form. The narrative researchers are able to build on the Kingsessing community owed to documents that survived the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An abundance of manumission documents and indentured servant contracts provides more than details of agreements between owners, servants, and slaves. These documents provide insight into the circumstances faced by the unfree. The Black community of Kingsessing showed just how inextricably linked race, class, and gender were to the institution of slavery.

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed legislation to enact gradual abolition, ensuring that the children of enslaved women would be born as indentured servants rather than as slaves. In doing so, the state became the first to pass a gradual emancipation law and became a model for freedom in many northern states. By 1787, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, properly known as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and for Improving the Condition of the African Race, proved an invaluable ally. Despite the gradual emancipation law in place, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, or PAS, was inundated with requests from Blacks seeking help to gain freedom. Property rights being a focal point of the American revolution, gradual emancipation compensated slaveholders by allowing them to maintain the children of enslaved women as indentured servants until the age of 28. Since the most productive years of a slave’s life were spent laboring, this minimized financial losses for their masters. Between 1790 and 1800, the free Black community in Philadelphia County rapidly increased from 2,489 to 6,880. By 1820, the enslaved population dropped to 211.[1] Despite having the earliest and largest free black population in America, slavery was as deeply impactful in Philadelphia as it was in other parts of the state and country.

The prevalence of slavery made an impact on the Bartram family, as did manumission.  Ann Bartram (1741–1824), the youngest daughter of Bartram’s Garden founder John Bartram (1699–1777), signed manumission papers for a slave named Mary Clark (1755–?).[2] In the documents, drafted November 26, 1792, we learn that Clark was 37 and paid Bartram 54 pounds for her release. Clark’s manumission document is unique in that the reverse side contains another written agreement. Ann Bartram released a slave named Grace Clark the same day, however, she only received twelve pounds, thirteen shillings, and five pence of the thirty-pound asking price. According to the document, she released Grace with the understanding that the remaining balance would be paid within one month. Further research is needed to determine Mary’s relationship to Grace, or how Grace came by the additional funds (the remaining seventeen pounds, six shillings, and seven pence was possibly worked off). Although Ann Bartram lived in what is currently referred to as Old City—she lived on Second Street between Walnut and Chestnut Streets—and did not reside at Bartram’s Garden, Clark’s manumission document is an example of the institution of slavery’s long reach, even in a family that was largely anti-slavery.


In 1897, W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963) began a sociological study that examined the condition of the Black community of Philadelphia and chose the residents of the seventh ward as his subjects. However, the Black Kingsessing community shares a history that rivals the seventh ward in all aspects. The community surrounding Bartram’s Garden became saddled with the same plight as many growing fee Black communities around the country. The role of slavery, manumission, and indentured servitude in the history of this area runs a clear thread through the documents available to scholars. Kingsessing and Bartram’s Garden stand as an excellent example of how complicated the discussion of slavery needs to be in the way we view the institution as well as how we teach slavery in the present. The Garden and the community show us the long-reaching effects of human bondage.[7]

[1] W. E. B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), 17. DuBois adds a comparison of population growth for context. The county’s Black community grew by 176%, the white community by 43%.

[2] Mary Clark and Grace Clark’s manumission from Ann Bartram, 26 November 1792, Collection 0490, Box 39, Folder 11, Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Clark’s year of birth is an estimate based on the age referenced in the manumission papers and the date of the document.

[7] The amount of material left to examine leaves room for more research to be done about the community and the Garden. Some questions remain about the Ganges Africans and which farmers they were placed with after receiving their freedom from the courts. Did Ann Bartram secure the remaining 17 pounds owed to her for Grace Clark’s manumission? How did Maria Gibbs build her estate? Were the enrollment figures from the Banneker School comprised of indentured children? Many of the documents that can answer these questions are located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Southwest Roots is supported by a creative placemaking grant from ArtPlace America. Art@Bartram’s is supported by the William Penn Foundation.

Last updated: Feb 14, 2018

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Karen Warrington says

Why is there no recognition of the enslaved (preferred term representing the condition) man buried in an unmarked grave at Bartram Gardens?