On the Waterfront: Chronicling the Lives of Philly’s Black Seamen

July 21, 2022 | by Keshler Thibert

Reconnecting Philadelphians to the waterfront is in full swing. Throughout the warmer months you can see children roller skating at Penn’s Landing, couples walking along Race Street Pier, crowds of folks enjoying meals at Keating’s Rope + Anchor Bar and La Peg brasserie, and runners and cyclists cruising along the newest segment of the Delaware River Trail. These scenes of 21st century leisure provide a dramatically different perspective of the city’s historical relationship with the Delaware River, once home to one of the biggest port in North America.

I often look back at the river wards as I ride the Market-Frankford Line past old industrial buildings that were used to supply ships for World War I and now stand quietly surrounded by empty creeks, weeds, and rust. While walking past the Wood Street Steps on Water Street I think about the human relationship between the water and the port. I pondered this notion during a recent trip to Virginia while exploring the waterfront there and its connection between Norfolk and Philadelphia.

A daguerreotype of wealthy sailmaker and abolitionist James Forten taken by Philadelphia photographer Robert Cornelius circa 1840. | Image courtesy of Middlebury College Museum of Art

During last year’s reenactment of the Battle of Germantown I was inspired by an African American man who stood between the British and Continental camps. Leon Brooks is a local reenactor of nautical history specifically related to Black dockworkers and seamen. Up until that moment, James Forten, a young African American sailor who became a wealthy sailmaker and abolitionist in the early 1800s, was the extent of my knowledge about Blacks and the Port of Philadelphia. Brooks’ reenactments prompted me to ask myself, “What was life like for them? What adversities did they overcome? If Forten could create wealth along the waterfront, what other opportunities were available to African Americans?”

As I dug deeper to find answers, I discovered that the relationship between Black dockworkers and seamen and the Delaware River had three distinct phases in history.

After the American Revolution

A painting by artist John Carwitham shows the Port of Philadelphia in 1752. | Image: Public Domain

By the beginning of the 19th century Philadelphia had established itself as the fourth largest port in America. Ships arriving from the Chesapeake Bay, Cuba, the West Indies, London, Western Europe, and China could be seen from miles around. These vessels carried sugar, fish, cotton, madeira wine, paying passengers, and enslaved peoples from the Caribbean. Various shops were built along the northern and southern wharves of the Delaware River. From the shipyards to warehouses to boarding houses, people of various colors and socioeconomic statuses could be seen moving through their daily lives.

Crews with both African (Black and Brown) and white seamen came ashore. Some stayed for a night, while others ate a meal before departing. The crews unloaded the old cargo and loaded the new cargo in preparation for heading back out to sea.

Gossip was shared about the ongoing revolution in Saint Domingue, stoked by fears of the recently concluded Fedon’s Rebellion in Grenada, which was still fresh on people’s minds. A decade later, the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America became a topic of conversation. The option to leave the United States with the hope of starting over elsewhere divided the community.

In 1798, James Forten, a Black man, acquiring the sail-making business of Robert Bridges, a white man. By this point it would not have been uncommon to see a mixed workforce. African employees such as Charles Anthony, James Cornish, and Shadrach Howard worked side by side with the majority white staff under the same work standards that consisted of strict moral, personal, and religious obligations. This cooperation allowed them to apprentice and earn wealth like Forten did.

James Forten’s sail making loft was bounded by Penn, Pine, and Little Water Streets and can be seen in the center of this drawing. | Image from Philadelphia and Her Merchants, Abraham Ritter, 1860

During this period, racial equality existed because of the nature of the work. For example, making sails would require knowing about sewing, the quality of the materials used, the parts of the sail, and the ability to work quickly under tough working conditions. Other positions such as in the coal trade generated enough work to employ over 12,000 men both Black and white by the 1830s.

The waterfront and its ships were rather romantically described by merchant Abraham Ritter as “floating castles of the mighty deep” and every sailor a “merry mariner.” He also described Black longshoremen as “swarthy operator(s) of the derrick” and sounds of “the negro song at the capstan, echoing from wharf to wharf.”

By 1798, 50 black sailors had shipped out on vessels from wharves at Almond Street and Willing Alley. A handful of them were Philadelphians who were unable to find stable work on land so they sought opportunities on the seas. Some never returned, while others left their families for long periods of time while earning up to $10 a month. Organizations like The Brotherly Union Society were established to maintain moral standards for seamen and expelled those found engaging in illicit behaviors ranging from gambling to spending time in brothels. All-Black crews with white officers like Brigadier General Scott G. Perry were not unusual.

Philadelphia seamen John Gardener, Sheppard Bourne, and others found themselves working in crowded, harsh conditions. Desegregation was possible as each sailor had a role in operating and maintaining the ship. More often than not, the positions of cook and steward were filled by Black men and were the worst-paying jobs. Everyone had to work collectively. Discipline was harsh on everyone. The captain had absolute rule and could exercise it by selling Africans back into slavery if they were not holding up their own. For instance, in July 1822 Captain James Gaul of the brig George attempted to sell William Wright while docked in Delaware. Wright avoided this fate with the help of Isaac Barton of The Pennsylvania Abolition Society. These events transformed the roles of African dockworkers and sailors by the mid-19th century.

Before the Civil War

A Black dockworker is depicted working alongside a white worker in William Russell Birch’s 1860 engraving Arch Street Ferry, Philadelphia. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

By the 1850s, more cotton was being shipped, bringing crews to the Antebellum South and into the Port of Philadelphia. The roles of the African dockworkers and seamen changed fundamentally. During the early 1800s, their primary concerns were finding work and spreading information to assist escaped slaves who were taking the eastern route to freedom. They would also alert The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society if someone was hoping to find a way out of enslavement while their owner was in town in business.

The docks became a communications network that was essential after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Southerners feared that talk of freedom in the north would spread south and cause revolt among the enslaved similar to Denmark Vessey’s planned insurrection in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822.

A seaman’s protection form (aka “free paper”) from 1859 issued by the City and Port of Philadelphia to an African American sailor from Portland, Maine. Fredrick Douglass used a similar form that he acquired from a retired Black seaman during his escape from slavery in Baltimore in 1838 en route to Philadelphia and New York City. | Image courtesy of James E. Arsenault & Company

Ships voyaging to the south now had to deal with laws like the Negro Seamen’s Act of 1852 that held African men captive on ships. If they ventured ashore they could be captured, put in jail, or sold into slavery.

In Philadelphia, this system of communication aided in freeing Jane Johnson, Abram Galloway, and Richard Eden who escaped in a vessel carrying turpentine. Charles Gilbert hid under a hotel, up a tree, under floor boards, in a thicket, and eventually on a steamer bound for Philadelphia. These individuals and more would rely on dockworkers to assist them during their journey into freedom.

After the Civil War the enactment of Jim Crow laws locked Black and Brown workers out of jobs in favor of white men, thus pushing them to the back of the line.

Turn of the 20th Century

The storefront of a Hog Island recruitment center in New York City in 1918. The South Philadelphia shipyard had a policy of hiring workers of all races. | Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

As Philadelphia entered the 20th century its port continued to thrive through trade. Shipbuilding and textiles were the primary exports from docks in Grays Ferry, Kensington, and South Philadelphia. Employment was available to engineers, truckers, water boys, and riggers. Dangerous work conditions persisted, leading to accidental injuries or deaths. The stress on the human body caused by loading and moving heavy items and the harsh conditions left many workers with untreated ailments and a shortened lifespan.

A race to the bottom allowed employers to play workers against each other for wages and positions. This advantage gave them the ability to pay $0.25 instead of $0.65 an hour. Unions like The Marine Transport Workers of Philadelphia and The American Federation of Labor formed to unite workers, but they were the only ones that sought to protect various ethnic groups under a single union.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), otherwise known as “Wobblies,” based their principles on Marxism. Formed by Chicago native William “Big Bill” Haywood, the group attracted non-whites, immigrants, women, migrants, and unskilled workers under a platform to unite instead of segregate. The pro-labor organization united many of the dockworkers under a single banner, and this allowed it to use the power of the strike as leverage.

This mugshot of Philadelphia union activist Ben Fletcher was taken in 1917. | Photo: Public Domain

IWW’s biggest mouthpiece became Philadelphian Ben Fletcher. Born in 1890 of both Indigenous and African lineage, he joined the union in the 1910s and eventually became a leader. He worked from various Philadelphia-based ports when not lobbying for the Wobblies in other cities in New England, Canada, and throughout the south. This would often put his life in danger since passing out information and trying to recruit union members could get him either arrested or lynched.

In 1917, a crowd in Norfolk, Virginia asked for Fletcher’s views on interracial marriage and intercourse between races while giving a speech. “I don’t see anyone as Black as I am, but we all damn well know the reason,” he responded. This action highlights the well-known secret of raping enslaved women to produce lighter-color children. Not another word was uttered for the remainder of his presentation.

A Black dock worker stands outside of his home at 2nd and Brown Streets with his family in 1923. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Eventually, along with other Wobblies, Fletcher was arrested in 1917 and placed in Leavenworth Prison under laws created during World War I to prevent sedition. While he was in jail the Wobblies worked to unite inmates, while those on the outside worked for their freedom. After receiving the harshest sentence out of the all the other Wobblies charged, Fletcher was released on bail in 1920 and continued to fight as a labor activist inspiring other organizers to adopt his tactics. By 1923, he receive a commutation on his prison sentence by President Warren G. Harding. A full pardon was given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. By that time no one could remember exactly why Fletcher was jailed in the first place.

Fletcher succeeded in uniting various ethnic groups to earn respect, fair wages, and improved working conditions. He believed that under Socialist practices he should not be the only voice, thus he empowered other Black Philadelphians like Joseph Whitzen, Amos White, and Charles Carter to take leadership roles and migrants from Finland, Lithuania, and Mexico to also become leaders in their own regions. Fletcher passed away in 1949, and his legacy inspired other dockworkers around the United States.

The Waterfront Today

After leaving West Philadelphia SEPTA’s Route 64 bus passes by Grays Ferry heading towards Washington Avenue before continuing east to end its run at Pier 70 along Columbus Boulevard. During a recent ride on Route 64 I turned from right to left trying to get a better look at the port that once employed Ben Fetcher while he lived in the area. After arriving at my final destination, I walked around the area to catch a look at the rails that run through the street. It is in these places you can feel Philadelphia’s role as a major port.

So many nameless Black and Brown individuals worked side by side with white Philadelphians for hundreds of years, yet they have been largely forgotten. Forten and Fletcher may have been leaders, but they are but pieces on a bigger story. Each worker of color had to deal with the added layer of race being used against them. Yet, they persevered and became role models for economic success, assisted men, women, and families with finding freedom from enslavement, and unionized people of all ethnicities. Black and Brown dockworkers on the Delaware River not only did their jobs, but they left an indelible mark on local African American history.


About the Author

Keshler Thibert is a voracious reader, book collector, tour guide, and current member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, but has also lived in Atlanta, GA, Santiago de Chile, Madrid, Patras, Greece, and Adelaide, South Australia. Thibert has an interest in social sciences, language, and local history. Read more of his work on Substack.


  1. Carolyn says:

    Thank you for this piece.

  2. Vincent Leggett says:

    Outstanding commentary, Sir!!!

    Vince Leggett
    Blacks of the Chesapeake
    Annapolis, Maryland

    1. D. H. says:

      What is Blacks of the Chesapeake?

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