Some silences defy breaking. The hush around contributions of many Black women, especially poor ones, to Philadelphia’s past and present sink into such quiet. They sewed clothes, washed dishes, tended privies and kept the city running, but they rate not a word in most histories. Yet, how would President George Washington’s dinners for diplomats in his “big house on Market Street” have gone without enslaved Blacks to cook and serve them? How would Philadelphians have looked and smelled without Black wash mammies? This yearlong series on Black women, especially from the working class, will wrestle with the quiet that erases most of them from history and damns them to scant respect.
The series will quote from historical documents, if available. For example, some records of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society refer to its Black members. On the other hand, some women of African heritage never learned to read or write because they had no chance to attend school or, in the case of slavery, the law forbade it. Harriet Tubman never became literate because of Maryland laws. She sometimes did cleaning in Philadelphia to earn money to finance her trips to free slaves, but we’ll never know in her own words how she felt about the city since she left no written record beyond a few dictated letters.
Although Philly-centered, the series will occasionally refer to related sources in other places. For instance, Reminiscences of My Life, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoir by South Carolina fugitive slave Susie King Taylor deserves mention, but the story will focus on Emilie Davis’s Civil War, the Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865.
Besides documents, the series will focus on museums, re-enactors, exhibitions, personalities, events, and experts. For example, Kali Gross, Ph.D., studied African-American women lawbreakers in the late 1800s, one of whom just about got away with murder. Read More