As Valentine’s Day approaches, I can’t help but ponder the hard choices that Black, brown, and interracial couples have had to make as a testament to their love in places that rendered their chances of commencing, or sustaining, their relationship almost impossible.
Although I have been in a few relationships, I still cannot clearly imagine the hardships imposed on our ancestors by external forces, such as biased social attitudes, cruel people, and unfair courts and laws. I have tried and failed to truly understand the anxiety of purchasing a loved one out of slavery or the fear while to escaping from a slave owner to pursue freedom. Other hardships for many included being harshly judged for choosing a mixed relationship and being hated for whatever reason and having one’s home burned to the ground.
For this year’s holiday, I want to reflect on a few of the many couples who have experienced extreme adversity because of their relationship. This is not, however, a lamination about lovers, but instead an attempt to learn from them, celebrate their successes, and admire their determination.
Colonial Philadelphia: Mary and Absalom
Absalom Jones, born in 1746 in Cedar Town, Sussex County, Delaware, was one of planter Abraham Wynkoop’s slaves. After Abraham died in 1753, Absalom was owned by Benjamin Wynkoop, Abraham’s eldest son. After Benjamin sold his assets, which included a plantation and Absalom’s mother, sister, and five brothers, he took Absalom with him to Philadelphia to open a bookstore.
They moved to an area near St. Peter’s Anglican Church, joined the church, and became neighbors with Sarah King, who at the time owned Mary Thomas. Absalom and Mary’s interactions at church and in the neighborhood lead to their mutual infatuation.
On January 4, 1770, a marriage ceremony was conducted at Christ Church, but due to Absalom and Mary’s status as slaves, they could not truly be united. After years of serving Benjamin, Absalom’s focus turned towards manumission (i.e. release from slavery) for Mary to allow their children to gain their freedom at the time of their maturity in accordance with 1725-26 PA Act for Gradual Abolition.
Upon purchasing her release, Absalom paid off his other debts and purchased a home, all by 1778. At this time, he tried to purchasing his own freedom, but his request is denied due to his value. Absalom worried about Benjamin’s right as his owner to take all possession both personal and material. After seven years, he bought his freedom and continued to work at the bookstore as a paid employee.
Colonial Philadelphia: Dinah and Her Husband
“And I do hereby give further unto my said Wife (Hannah Emlen Logan) as her own property the negroe Woman Dinah and her Grand Child Cyrus, having already set her Daughter Bess free and desire they may not be dunned or valued as part of my Estate my said Wife’s Father George Emlen deceas’d having given Dinah to her in his Life time.” — William Logan, Last Will, 1772
Hannah Emlen, the wife of William Logan, brought her dowry, which included the enslaved Dinah, grandson Cyrus, and freed daughter Bess, to Stenton Avenue and the home of James Logan, secretary of William Penn. Unfortunately, this relocation left Dinah’s husband with the Emlen family who later sold him to an unidentified party who planned to sell him again due to his poor health.
Dinah begged the Logans to purchase her husband and they relented. Because of his poor health, he was offered his freedom, but he chose to stay with his wife. From that time onward, not much is known about their relationship, but the fact that Dinah persuaded the family to let her and her husband stay together speaks plenty about their relationship.
19th Century Philadelphia: Ellen and William
William Still, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, wrote in his diary the story of Ellen, who had fair skin, and William Craft, who’s skin was darker. Owned by different masters, William witnessed the sale of his younger sister before he, too, was sold.
Ellen, the offspring of one of her master’s slaves, invoked the ire of her master’s wife due to the circumstances of her birth. She was later given away as a wedding present to her mistress’s daughter. Ellen and William planned to meet in Macon, Georgia. As they were both favorites of their respective masters, this status allow them more freedom than most slaves had. Soon after marrying, they quickly realized that, regardless to their union, as slaves their lives were truly not their own.
William convinced Ellen to sneak away to Philadelphia, as it was in the “Free North,” but do so in plain sight as no one would suspect them. Ellen dressed as a man and William pretended to be her slave in waiting. Taking advantage of their status as favorites, they convinced their masters for some time to themselves around the Christmas holidays. Using this opportunity, on December 21, 1848, they used a mix of skill, craftiness, luck, prayers, and guile to make their way through mixed forms of transport, like the Underground Railroad, to go from Georgia to South Carolina and onward via a steamer to Philadelphia with a stop in Baltimore. Along the way they stayed in luxury hotels as they continued their masquerade.
Arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, they met Still who ushered them into their new lives. They found a place to live and learned introductory reading skills. After three weeks they left for Boston where the couple truly began their life together. William and Ellen remained there for two years before finally settling in England where they started a family. After 20 years, they returned to the United States where they started a school for newly freed Blacks after the Civil War.
20th Century Philadelphia: Black, Brown, and White
“The people that used to go in the church, they all, some of them they already have apartments in the same neighborhood. But when, I remember when I went there to look for apartments, they throw the door in my face. They didn’t want no colored people, you know, my skin is dark. When I send my wife, because you know, [with] her white skin, she could talk with the people. This is why we got an apartment.” – Don Jose in an excerpt from Carmen Teresa Whalen’s book From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia.
Throughout the late 1940s to early 1950s, an influx of Puerto Ricans came to Mt. Vernon Street in the Spring Garden neighborhood due to the availability of work in the surrounding area. This was a prominently Irish neighborhood at the time where clashes between neighbors and Puerto Ricans were a constant threat.
Don Jose and his wife arrived in 1947. He had difficulties while trying to find a home until his wife was able to procured a residence at 16th and Spring Garden Streets due to her white skin.
In From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, Jose describes his family life in the first Hispanic neighborhood in Philadelphia as neighbors actively discriminated against them. The neighbors, however, were unable to reliably tell the difference between caucasian whites and Puerto Ricans of lighter complexion, and so some neighborhood businesses posted signs stating “No Puerto Ricans.”
Puerto Ricans had three choices due to this discrimination: go to work, stay at home, or visit a church. In the book Jose recalls having dirty, soapy water thrown on his and others’ backs as they sat on their stoops. Inevitably tensions increased between the Irish and Hispanics. These issues sparked a riot in 1952 that resulted in even more police discrimination. Some authors, including me, believe that the relocation of the Puerto Rican population into North Philadelphia was the final decision the city made about this issue.
Race relations did improve in the following decades, but by the 1980s adverse reactions towards mixed-color couples were still widely prevalent in Philadelphia. According to articles published in 1985, Marietta Bloxom and Charles Williams, a Black couple, and Gerald and Carol Fox, a Black and white couple, moved into the Elmwood neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia and soon faced their neighbors’ wrath.
On the night of November 20, 1985, a 400-person white mob gathered outside of Bloxom and Williams home. Rioters threw bottles filled with gasoline, shattered windows, and broke in and vandalized the residence. Amid this madness reporters documented deli workers passing out free coffee.
Eventually, the Bloxom and Williams home was set on fire by an arsonist. After the ashes burned out, the neighbors were left in shock and shamed. This was expressed in a letter penned by “A Friendly Neighbor.” “I think those people who protested should be ashamed of themselves. They are supposed to live in the City of Brotherly Love. I saw people I used to respect, but I don’t no more. I saw people there that were not even from this neighborhood. I can’t believe this is happening in 1985. I just wanted you and your family to know it is not everyone doing this terrible thing.”
Present Day Philadelphia
Today’s Black and brown couples still deal with racism, stares, disparaging looks, indirect comments, and family-based issues. As we move forward in becoming a more understanding and inclusive city, we should do what Philadelphians are well-known for: minding our own business and allowing others mind their own business, too.
This article is sponsored by a grant from the Centre for the Preservation of Modernism at Thomas Jefferson University College of Architecture and the Built Environment. All funds provided will aid in furthering Hidden City’s commitment to elevating the voices of African American writers.