Census of the Free Black Community

Census of the Free Black Community

The free black community in Philadelphia was one of the largest groups of African Americans living in an urban area in the 18th and 19th centuries. This lesson will help students to make connections between quantitative data and textual information in making conclusions about the free black community.

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?


  • Students will be able to use statistics to make evidenced-based conclusions about the Free Black Community in Philadelphia by constructing a summary of what life was life for a specific household based on census data.
  • Students will be able to make comparisons between statistical and textual evidence by identifying and examining the similarities and differences between what life was like based on census data and Joseph Willson’s account.

Other Materials

Computer access or large handouts of census

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Teachers should draw on first and second part of the lesson to engage students in the lesson. Students should answer this question in no more than a paragraph on lined paper. Ask students to respond to the following questions in a pre-writing activity:
    • What do you presently know about the free black community in Philadelphia?
    • What additional information would you like to know?
  2. Ask students to set their answers aside.  Do not review students’ answers with them as students will need to reflect on their answers later in the lesson.
  3. Make computers available to students so that they can access data from the Colored Census of Philadelphia online or print out large copies of the census to handout to students.
  4. Direct students to select one household from the Census data and carefully study its members (family size, occupations, ages, literacy, property, and manumission status).  Instruct students to select a household that contains a lot of information and to make note of all the details provided in the Census record.
  5. Students should collect the raw data and write a brief description of the household. After drafting a description, students should answer the following questions:
    • Which parts of your description are based on facts?
    • Which parts are based on inferences?
    • What other kinds of information would be useful? Where might you go to find this information?
  6. Using their descriptions, ask students to reflect back to Joseph Willson’s description of the free black community.  Ask students to state whether the family they have described is represented in Willson’s account. 
  7. Ask students to return their attention to the pre-writing activity that they performed in the engagement section of this lesson. Asking that students think about their responses, request that they create a summary of their findings on the Free Black Community.
  8. Ask students to examine their summary and to determine whether their conclusions about free African Americans in Philadelphia are accurate and based on the evidence they have examined.
  9. Inquire whether students’ conclusions provide them with the additional information they expressed that they would like in the pre-writing activity. 


Raw data: data which has not been analyzed