Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

Black women were a small but important segment of the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania laboring classes. As slaves, as indentured servants, or as free persons of color, their options were extremely limited, but they could and did make decisions that affected their lives. The evacuation of Philadelphia by the British in 1778 during the Revolutionary War reveals the kinds of limited choices which were available to Black women.

Twenty-seven Black women from Pennsylvania who left with the British joined hundreds of other Black women from Virginia and Maryland in a flight to freedom with the British troops who moved north. By 1783, one scholar estimates, more than fourteen thousand Black people actually left the United States with the British forces, while tens of thousands of others took refuge with the troops wherever they moved within the colonies.

Unfortunately, these twenty-seven women left few records with individual information. Indeed, records of the Black population before the nineteenth century are scattered – some baptism and marriage records, wills and deeds which mention Blacks, newspaper advertisements for sale of Blacks or for runaways, tax records, diaries of observers, court records and emancipations, indentures, and other legal-protection papers.

Much of the information in this article comes from a unique document – the “Inspection Roll of Negroes, Taken on Board Sundry Vessels at Staten Island and Bound tor Nova Scotia.” This list was created in 1783 by the British to satisfy the desire of the Continental Congress after the war to locate “purloined slaves and Blacks.” It records the destination of British ships departing American waters for Canada with Blacks. It has personal information about each Black person on board, such as age, physical description, indication of slave or free status, and, if formerly enslaved, to whom, how long separated from owner, and finally, the name of owner at time of embarkation. This roll, con­taining some 3,360 names of Afro-Americans, if analyzed carefully can yield extremely valuable information about Black mentality and motivation.



Most Afro-American women came to Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century when slavery was flourishing in the colony. Some were brought by ship from other colonies, especially South Carolina, and from Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, St. Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla, and Bermuda. From the mid-eighteenth century, Blacks were forced immigrants to the colony directly from the African continent. Up to 1729 only a few Blacks, about two or three, came on each ship. From the time of the Seven Years War, however, when the number of white male servants declined, the numbers of Blacks brought into the colony aboard ships increased. After 1766, however, the trade slowed significantly, though not completely. Records of the Bureau of Customs indicate that Blacks were imported and exported through the port of Phila­delphia even after the Revolution and the ending of slavery in Pennsylvania – often illegally. For example, the schooner “Prudence” brought seventeen African men, women, and children in 1800, and the ship “Phoebe” one hundred Africans in the same year in defiance of the section of the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition law which expressly forbade the trade.

Most Blacks in the colony immediately before the Revolution were concentrated in six southeastern counties: Philadelphia, York, Cumberland, Bucks, Lancaster, and Chester. Any statement of the numbers of Blacks in the colony made before the first federal census of 1790 rep­resents an estimate, since no comprehensive count was made before that time. Most experts give estimates of two thousand to ten thousand Afro-Americans in Pennsylvania bound in slavery and indentureship for various years between 1715 and 1775, based on views of contemporary observers and county tax records. Some county tax records give information about the number of Blacks taxable as property between 1772 and 1783: Bed­ford, 28; Berks, 164; Cumberland, 649; Lancaster, 439; Washington, 448; and York, 448. The slave population in Philadelphia was estimated at 1,392 in 1767 and 673 in 1775.

Within the confines of slavery Black women worked hard and suffered many trials. For some the English lan­guage was difficult, and diseases aggravated by the harsh Pennsylvania winters took many lives. Blacks who were free were sometimes not given the opportunity of employ­ment; so they fed, clothed, and housed themselves with difficulty. Some women went to the poorhouse; others ended in jail. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society petitioned for the release of Dinah Nevil and her children from the Philadelphia workhouse on May 29, 1775. There was also the ever present threat of being kidnapped and taken to the South, a practice which became alarmingly common after abolition in 1780.

The occupations of most Afro-Americans did not vary much before the Revolution. Most Blacks in the colony worked on farms or as domestic servants. Farmers often utilized a slave or a free family along with their own for field and house work, but more often Blacks worked in urban centers. In the era of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, about one in every five families owned a slave. It was fashionable in the colony, especially in Philadelphia, to employ Black women as housekeepers and cooks. This is the principal reason why Black women were more numerous than Black men in the Philadelphia area. The women’s tasks as housekeepers included washing, ironing, tending children, and waiting table. Some women were skillful with needlework or spinning. Black women worked as laundresses, nurses, dressmakers, seamstresses, and cooks. The Pennsylvania Evening Post, October 27, 1777, advertises a Black woman to be sold who can cook, wash, iron, and bake exceedingly well. A few were employed outside the city in ironworks. The 1790 census lists occupations for a few Philadelphia free Black women: Ann McNeil was a housekeeper, Phoebe (no sur­name given) was a huckster or peddler, and Margaret Woodby was a cake baker. Another source lists Ann Poulson as a laundress and Terra Hall as a hatter. Compared to the plantation-labor of the South, the tasks of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Black women seemed diverse and gave them opportunities later slaves could never realize.

Those who were free were constrained by a web of laws woven with the intent of limiting the activities of all Black people. In 1732, 1738, and 1741, the Philadelphia City Council passed acts prohibiting slave “tumults” on Sundays and in the courthouse square at night. These “tumults” were generally social gatherings, parties, fu­nerals, or church services led by self-appointed Black religious leaders who wandered about the vicinity of Philadelphia and through the colony preaching to the Black population. Because Black people became skilled in many areas of endeavor, white workers petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1708 and 1722 to forbid the employment of Black mechanics or skilled workers. In 1726 a law was passed forbidding masters to hire out their slaves.

Thus, eighteenth-century Pennsylvania Black women were fettered economically and socially whether they were slaves, indentured servants, or free persons. Lacking real freedom these women could exercise limited personal liberty or they could, at the time of the British occupation of Philadelphia, make a much bolder move.



During the Revolutionary War, Black Americans-women and men alike – became military and political pawns of both the British and the Americans. Even though Black men had fought and distinguished themselves at the outset of the war at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Americans were reluctant to allow Afro-Americans to join their ranks on a permanent basis. In fact, on July 10, 1775, the Continental Congress decreed that no “stroller, Negro, or vagabond” might enlist in the military.

The British were quick to see that enslaved Blacks presented one of the gravest weaknesses in the rebel effort. November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, declared freedom for all Blacks who would leave their masters and join the British forces. The British aim was to deplete the rebels’ work force while simultaneously gaining one for themselves. Both Black men and women were welcome.

The Americans, viewing this offer with alarm, reversed the July 10 decree by providing that free Black men who had already served might re-enlist. Soon many states were encouraging Black enlistment and a few were even promising Blacks their freedom in return tor service in the army or navy.

Blacks in Philadelphia soon were faced with the choice of either joining the British forces or not. In the fall of 1777 the occupying forces of General Howe entered Philadelphia and brought with them a number of Black women who had sought their protection. They had been moving with the British troops since Lord Dunmore began to recruit Blacks in 1776.

Black women were there with their enlisted husbands, children, and aged parents; some were even alone. An interesting aspect of the activities of these women was their active family life behind British lines, which was indicated by their marriages to Black enlistees and the numerous children listed as “born free with British lines.”

It was with these women that Philadelphia Blacks discussed running away. Word of their presence obviously spread fast, for even in the Pennsylvania hinterland Black people came to join the British army. For example, on December 6, 1777, Joe, who was about twenty-five years old, ran away from Lancaster “to go to Howe’s army.”

Though not compelled before to make a decision be­tween British and American forces, the presence of the British in Philadelphia changed that – of the seven hundred Blacks in Philadelphia and some two thousand more in the immediate vicinity, at least seventy-five Black Penn­sylvanians (twenty-seven women, forty-eight men) evacu­ated with the British in 1778, and were on the boats to Nova Scotia in 1783.

Why and how did these Blacks make their choices? For most Black Americans who left the choice was obvious: the British lines offered immediate freedom while the Americans did not. Though Pennsylvania slavery was not harsh it was slavery nonetheless, with the same and selling, bartering, and advertising of human beings as with southern slavery. The struggle for a social and family life would be easier in freedom. Those that stayed gave a variety of reasons: family, in some cases property, and a belief in the egalitarian thrust of the American Revolution and the eventual abolition of slavery. Indeed, in 1780 Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation law, but it would not help these people and their immediate families.



The twenty-seven Black women who left with the British were a special group. They were young enough to adjust to new surroundings much better than older women; their average age was twenty-eight years. Seven were already free when they left with the British – two were emancipated, two were born free, and three children were listed as born free. In addition three children were born free within British lines. Nine women were listed as being with their husbands and children; possibly more had spouses and siblings since many Black men and women appear on the inspection roll with names similar to the twenty-seven but were not identified as being related. Three were still claimed as slaves at the time of the British evacuation in 1783. *

Between the 1778 evacuation of Philadelphia and 1783, these women. as did many hundreds more, travel­led with the British troops. They were employed in various service details, such as washing, cooking, sewing, and cleaning for the troops. (The men worked as teamsters and were armed to help fight with the troops.) One of the women, at least, was a member of the Black Pioneers,** a unit of labor troops the British organized while occupying Philadelphia, which included Blacks from other states as well. According to General Howe’s Orderly Book, seventy­-two men, fifteen women, and eight children worked as a clean-up detail under the command of Capt. Allen Stewart. As an added incentive to join, the Black Pioneers were paid for their services.

After following the British for five years ( 1778-1783). these Black women moved to Nova Scotia. The British authorities gave some land grants in Shelborne Township, and some continued to serve as servants, but for new masters. Many found Nova Scotia winters harsh and farm­ing difficult, so in 1792 and again in 1800 a number of these same men and women moved to Sierra Leone, the British expatriate colony in Africa. Again, ironically, Black men and women were forced to choose the most practical means of preserving freedom, while at the same time enhancing their chance for survival.



Historians too often view Black men and women as victims of slavery and powerless pawns. This particular case study shows the need for re-evaluating that position; twenty-seven Black women made hard decisions which took them beyond bondage and into territory they could have only dreamed existed. Too, a certain circumstance, in this case British-American competition for Black labor, caused a loosening of the restraints on Black people and especially slaves. These twenty-seven Black women weighed their options and left with the British. The rewards were worth it – freedom with dignity.


* American owners followed British troops in order to reclaim their slaves. A few slaves were returned but it took extraordinary effort. These efforts to recover slaves – especially through newspaper advertisement – told much of the story of these Black men and women who left with the British.

** There were forty-three Black Pioneers on the inspection roll.



Black Women and Children on the Inspection Roll, 1783

From National Archives and Records Service, Papers of the Continental Congress

Lucy Bush, 35, stout wench, with a boy five years old, formerly property of William Warner, nigh Philadelphia. [Listed with Issac Bush, 35, of Norfolk County, Vir­ginia.]

Catharine, 30, stout wench, formerly property of Dr. Van Solinger of Philadelphia, left him in New York about five years ago.

Esther Clark, 35, ordinary wench, formerly slave to Michael Clark, Philadelphia. Left in June 1778.

Dian, 20, stout, squat with small child. With George Harding. Formerly slave to John Seule, Philadelphia. Left him four years ago.

Dinah, 25, stout wench, Black Pioneers. Formerly property to Phil Phelix, Philadelphia. Left him in 1778.

Grace, 16, stout wench, with W. W. Genl. Dept. [?], formerly property of Richard Drew, Pennsylvania. Left him with the British troops leaving Philadelphia.

Lucy Hart, 35, stout wench. Formerly property of Sampson Levi of Philadelphia who gave her her freedom.

Nancy Henry, 25, ordinary wench. Formerly slave to Joseph Convey. Philadelphia. Left him in 1778. With Ralph Henry, 30, and Molly Henry, 4, fine child, born free with the British lines.

Flora Hill, ordinary wench, formerly property to James Yard, Philadelphia. Left in 1778.

Isabella, 40, stout wench, with H. Massenburgh. Formerly the property of Charles Mifflin of Philadelphia. Left five years ago.

Betsy Johnson, 32, stout wench, she produced a certificate of freedom from Margaret Ogilivie, her former mistress. She was with Peter Johnson, 30, Peter, 4, and Lukey, 2.

Sarah Johnson, 22, squat wench. Quadroon [?] with Donald Ross. Left same master with Thomas Johnson, her husband. [Also listed are Thomas, 40, and three children: Colin, 4, Elijah, 11, and Patty, 7 months.] Left 4 years before and came to New York.

Lucretia Jones, 27, likely wench, in the possession of George Low. Says she is free. Left Philadelphia with the troops. [Listed with] John, 40, and Charlotte, 3. John had left with Lord Dunmore in 1776.

Polly King, 28, stout wench, formerly slave to Fraser of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Left him about five years ago. [Listed with] Robert King, 4, born free with­in British lines.

Tinah Leech, 25, stout wench, with Captain Trench, formerly property of George Leech of Philadelphia.

Mary, 17, ordinary wench, formerly property of Isaac Johnson of Philadelphia. Left him and joined the British lines in 1778.

Bellah Miles, 44, stout wench, formerly property of Philip Dickinson of Philadelphia. Left him seven years ago.

Sally Miles, 10, fine wench, formerly property of Philip Dickinson of Philadelphia. Left six years ago.

Violette Miller, 34, stout wench, formerly property of Rose Lloyd. Left Philadelphia in 1778.

Abby Moore, 30, stout wench, with three children aged 6, 3, and 9 months. Formerly property of Philip Dickin­son of Philadelphia. Left seven years ago.

Mary Porte, 40, stout wench, formerly slave to Joseph Moore of Philadelphia. Left him about six years ago.

Rose Richard, 20, healthy young woman, with Thomas Richard, her owner, who was a refugee from Philadel­phia.

Sarah Tillisitas, 14, fine girl, one-half black, with Peter Robinson. Born free at Philadelphia from whence she came with Peter Robinson five years ago.

Venus Williams, 50, stout woman, formerly slave to George Gibson of Philadelphia. Left him about six years ago.


For those readers interested, consult Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution; James W. St. G. Walker, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870; and Debra L. Newman, “Black Women in the Era of the American Revolution in Pennsylvania,” Journal of Negro History, LXI (July 1976) 256-65.


Debra Newman is working on a Ph.D. in African history at Howard University in Washington, D. C. A Student of the Block experience in Africa and the United States, Ms.
Newman’s work has also appeared in the
Journal of Negro History. She is currently an archivist in the Industrial and Social Branch of the National Archives, where she has done extensive research in the area of Block history.