The African American Experience in Philadelphia during the War of 1812

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The African American Experience in Philadelphia during the War of 1812

2017-06-22 12:27


*This blog is the fifth in a series by Sarah Sharp, Global Educator for World Heritage Philadelphia.

Moving on from a focus on the international dimensions of the War of 1812 to consider the various specific populations who lived in Philadelphia during the period can pay teachers and students rich rewards.  That gain is especially evident in coverage of the African American community across the broader Philadelphia region even if we only look at the lives and careers of several individuals, James Forten, Charles Ball, Russell Parrott, and Paul Cuffe.

James Forten (1766-1842), son of sailmaker Thomas Fortune, was a child in Philadelphia during the American Revolution, and his life tells us a great deal about local African American history (See Winch, A gentleman of color : the life of James Forten).  By 1812, Forten was 46, a wealthy international merchant, shipowner, property owner, and a leading member of the city’s African American community.  When the War drew closer to Philadelphia after the burning of the White House in Washington, D.C., in August 1814, Forten was instrumental in gathering over 1,000 free African American men to offer a day’s service to build a redoubt near Gray’s Ferry on the Schuylkill River to help defend the city from anticipated British attack.  

Forten’s “Committee of Defence” worked on September 21 and 22, 1814, alongside other Philadelphians to construct this earthen defense. This “Committee” was not the same Committee of Defence of Philadelphia as white Philadelphians created for a more comprehensive purpose of raising troops, gathering armaments, and supporting the erection of fortifications all around the city (Minutes of the Committee of defence of Philadelphia, 1814-1815).  Even with this effort, Forten’s economic activities held several challenges to his own support of African Americans.  For one, he continued to use and sell cotton duck fabric for ships’ sails, even though American slaves helped to produce such material.


What questions do Forten’s life raise about other members of Philadelphia’s African American community during this era?

  • Were there other examples of racial divisiveness?  What about examples of racial cooperation?
  • What other examples can students find of wartime choices and challenges in modern conflicts?

The actual status of free African Americans at this time was unclear.  They certainly were not citizens and so not required to give any military aid, but they volunteered anyway, answering Forten’s call to show their patriotism.  Some Philadelphians felt that African American men would do well as “cannon fodder” (quoted in Winch, A gentleman of color : the life of James Forten, Democratic Press, January 1813).  By 1810, there were perhaps 10,000 African Americans, both free and enslaved, in the city of Philadelphia.  During the period of the War, both the city and state governments supported restrictions on African Americans’ activities.  

  • Can students use these stories of segregation and racist behavior as context for actions and politics in our own time?
  • What other wars have examples of racial segregation and integration among American military forces?

Beyond Forten’s activities, two other African Americans’ lives - those of Charles Ball and Russell Parrott - allow us to explore additional aspects of this historical period.  Although born into slavery in Maryland, by the time hostilities erupted between the United States and Great Britain, Ball had declared himself to be free (  Although he certainly might have allied himself with the British, as many other African American enslaved men definitely did, instead he signed on as a cook to the small American naval forces in the Chesapeake area.  His heroism in the 1814 Battle of Baltimore as a member of the crew aboard the USS Congress (one of Philadelphia naval architect Joshua Humphreys’ designs) is commemorated at the National Park Service Fort McHenry Monument. Ball’s Wartime experiences remind us again of African Americans’ uncertain status and difficult circumstances in this era.  

Students may also be curious about the experiences of African American men who fought against their slave status by running away and fighting in the British navy during the War of 1812, or slaves whom the British freed when capturing private Philadelphia schooners. If these slaves ended up on British ships, their conditions did not necessarily improve.  British seamen were forced to split their rations with these poor individuals, some of whom even asked to be returned to their masters as the situation deteriorated.

  • What have been the fates of prisoners in episodes of modern international conflict?
  • What were the experiences of other American sailors and soldiers during the War?

Russell Parrott’s life aligns us again with James Forten’s career.  A printer by trade, Parrott (1791-1824) was also a lay assistant pastor under Absalom Jones at Philadelphia’s African Episcopal Church.  He used this church community to work energetically on Forten’s behalf to encourage parishioners to show their patriotism through work days to build the redoubt to defend the city against the British.  Also, Forten and Parrott shared in the abolitionist efforts among African Americans, supported the new colonization drive for Sierra Leone which was emerging at this time.  They also helped to create the Augustine Society of Pennsylvania that provided for the education of African American children when the city and state governments were deepening restrictions in the war period. (For more, see Pamphlets of protest : an anthology of early African-American protest literature, 1790-1860)  Parrott earned major repute as a pamphleteer and public speaker across the city on all of these topics (Two orations on the abolition of the slave trade : delivered in Philadelphia in 1812 and 1816).  

Reminding ourselves about the only available form of international transport during the early nineteenth century, that of shipping, automatically draws us back to ships, their captains, and their crews.  A key chapter in this transportation history starred New England ship captains such as Paul Cuffe (1759-1817), an abolitionist and one of the wealthiest African Americans in the time period who assisted in taking African Americans to Sierra Leone who wanted to leave the United States. The War of 1812 interfered with Cuffe’s efforts and slowed down such resettlement (For more, link to

  • Who helped Captain Cuffee throughout New England and in our region?
  • What questions may students ask about Philadelphians’ efforts to participate in the African resettlement drive before the Civil War?
  • What else may we learn about emigration away from the United States in this era and in our own time? Why would people want to leave the United States today?  How is this emigration happen?

As the War of 1812 closed, economic and political activities shifted in Philadelphia, immigration to the city from the South and Europe increased, and racial tensions rose with the times as well.  International and domestic trade resumed, and the city’s expanding manufacturing industries drew thousands who found themselves attracted to new opportunities.  Yet, as happened in the nation’s other regions, racial strife mounted as seen in the increase in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania state efforts to restrict the activities and movements of African Americans.  Forten and others protested these efforts (For more, link to

  • What else can students learn about Philadelphians’ efforts to oppose racist legislation in the era of the war of 1812 and its aftermath?  In our own time?




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