Philadelphia’s Free Black Community

Home Education Unit Plans The Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Free Black Community Philadelphia’s Free Black Community

Philadelphia’s Free Black Community

This lesson focuses on the community of free blacks in Philadelphia through the study of an account by one of its members, Joseph Willson. This lesson requires students to use textual primary sources to learn about the Free Black community. Additionally, students will examine and respond to a narrative description of free African Americans in Philadelphia. 

Essential Questions

How can the story of another Pennsylvanian, past or present, influence your life?


  • Students will be able to make inferences about formation of the free African American community by examining Joseph Willson’s account to make conclusions about the community.
  • Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of the diversity of experiences of African Americans during the nineteenth century by evaluating how Willson’s point-of-view was affected by his societal status.
  • Students will be able to explore various African American organizations that existed for free blacks by identifying which organizations were included in Willson’s account and discussing their role in the community.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Write the word “Community” on the board. Ask students to participate in a free association word activity in which they suggest words or ideas that come to mind when they hear or see the word.  Note: Teachers can create their own graphical organizer on the chalk board or use the one that is contained in the background materials for this lesson.
  2. After students exhaust their suggestions, reflect with the students on their responses.  Note: Teachers should look for patterns in students’ answers.  Many students will focus their responses on the commonalities that people in a community share.  If this is the case, point this out to them.  Also, highlight any responses that emphasize dissimilarities among individuals in a community.  Teachers might highlight the idea that communities are comprised of people with similar and different experiences.
  3. Ask students how they believe that people form communities and what purpose they serve for people?
  4. Inform students that they are going read a description of the free black community in Philadelphia written in the 19th century by a free African American man, Joseph Willson. Teachers should distribute to students a selection from Joseph Willson’s text, Sketches of Black Upper-Class Life in Antebellum Philadelphia.
  5. Encourage students to actively engage with the text. Suggest that they think about and write down the following information as they read the account.  Students can use notebook paper to record their ideas about the following: descriptions of free black community, level of detail, accuracy of the account, and language and tone used in account.
  6. Ask students to share their thoughts about the text with the entire class. Note: Teachers should attempt to foster as much discussion as time permits on Willson’s text.  Prompts might include asking students to consider: Willson’s use of statistics in his description, Willson’s role among free blacks, and Willson’s discussion of free black organizations
  7. Distribute Joseph Willson’s Free Black Community handout and ask students to complete it. Advise students to take their time answering the questions on the handout as they will need the information later to make comparisons between the text they are examining and another type of source on the free black community that they will analyze in the second lesson plan in this unit.
  8. Review handout with students.  Teachers should concentrate their comments on helping students to understand that Willson’s description of free blacks is one perspective that is nuanced by his Willson’s status and role in the community.


Community: a group of people having cultural, religious, ethnic, or other characteristics in common
Benevolence: desire to do goodwill to others; charitableness
Solicitude: worry, unease
Antebellum: pre-Civil War
Free Blacks: a person of African descent who was not enslaved, a term used prior to the Civil War

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