FORGING FREEDOM: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720-1840 by Gary B. Nash

FORGING FREEDOM: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720-1840

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A fascinating and moving study that explores the successes and failures of an early movement for black equality, laying bare the deep roots in America's history both of racial hatred and of egalitarian idealism. Nash (History/UCLA; The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution, 1979) traces Philadelphia's black community from the days of stavery in the mid-18th century to the heyday of abolitionism and interracial harmony in the post-revolutionary period to the increasingly tense situation faced by independent and successful blacks in the financially depressed 1820's and 1830's. The idealistic belief in natural rights and the conviction that the condition of the blacks was due not to race but to the depravity of slavery (the environmentalist theory) gave way to the view among whites--often backed up by such pseudoscientific methodologies as phrenology--that blacks were by nature inferior to whites. An ideal of racial integration and desire for black achievement disintegrated into race riots in the street and mockery in cartoons and tabloids of the pretentions of the growing black middle class. Nash shows that despite increasing segregation and violence, the black community was well-established, successful, and strong by the 1820's. But it would be another 100 years before the lost ideals of the 1780's and 1790's were recovered. A few leaders--Benjamin Rush, the abolitionist; James Forten, the sailmaker and political leader; Richard Allen, the Methodist minister--emerge from these pages as extraordinary individuals who influenced the course of history. But this is mostly a study of the average man and woman, of coachmen and maids and oystermen, the quality of whose lives Nash reconstructs with extraordinary vividness from public records, census data, and old newspapers.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1988
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press