Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Slavery and the Slave Trade

Reader-Nominated Topic

Slavery and the slave trade were central to the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Philadelphia as the region economically benefited from the institution and dealt with tensions created by slave trading, slave holding, and abolitionism. Early Philadelphia, an Atlantic trading hub, became both a focal point for the slave trade and a community of enslaved Africans. Slaves created their own family and social networks while simultaneously integrating into white Philadelphia, shaping the political, economic, and social course that the region took into the nineteenth century.

Slave labor was integral to the region even before William Penn (1644-1718) founded Pennsylvania. New Sweden colonists, whose settlement from 1638-1655 centered on present-day Wilmington, Delaware, and extended throughout the lower Delaware Valley, imported the first African slaves in the mid- to late seventeenth century.  After Penn founded his colony, slavery continued to be integral to the infant city of Philadelphia and its environs with the first slave ship arriving in Philadelphia itself in 1684. Slaves filled labor needs in many occupations as the region developed a diverse economy. Colonists in New Jersey and Delaware utilized slavery in essentially the same ways, though planters in central and southern Delaware used slaves to grow tobacco, wheat, and other commodities.

The presence of indentured servants in the colonial period created a hybrid labor system in which the region’s indentured white laborers, free wage laborers, and slaves worked alongside each other. This system created flexibility for meeting labor needs as labor costs and supply fluctuated throughout the colonial period. Masters routinely hired out their slaves, which further added to the labor system’s flexibility and the regional impact of slavery. The hiring-out system allowed slaves to move throughout the region on long and short term contracts to various masters. Native Americans were occasionally among the enslaved until at least the middle of the eighteenth century, but most enslaved people were Africans or African descendants. By the 1710s,  race-based  slavery had developed and European colonists rationalized slavery by seeing Africans as barbaric, heathen, and therefore eligible for enslavement. Through Philadelphia’s port, like in other colonies, these ideas of race and slavery came into the region as merchants and sailors participated in the growth of Western slavery and the slave trade. By 1710, slaves constituted almost twenty percent of Philadelphia’s population; while the number of slaves increased until just before the American Revolution, reaching 1,375 in 1770 or just over eight percent of the total population.

lithograph of the London Coffee House

A slave auction block is visible in the scene of the London Coffee House, Front and Market Streets. (Library Company of Philadelphia)


Most Came from Caribbean

The slave trade represented a major part of the Philadelphia region’s relationship to the Atlantic world, the networks formed by trade, migration, and political associations between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Slave ships outfitted in Philadelphia traveled to the West African coast to trade for slaves, though the majority of slaves who entered the region did not come from Africa directly. Most came after living for several years in the Caribbean with their masters or on slave ships whose masters had purchased them in the Caribbean for sale in the smaller North American market. These largely West African slaves filled labor shortages in the Philadelphia region, especially when disruptions limited the supply of indentured laborers. For example, when the Seven Years’ War interrupted the flow of indentured laborers, the Philadelphia region imported almost 1,300 slaves in a nine-year period, including many directly from Africa. By 1767, fifteen percent of Philadelphia households owned slaves. However, the slave trade to the region largely ended when Pennsylvania levied a high duty on imported slaves in 1773 in response to fears of slave revolt as well as calls to end the most horrid part of the institution of slavery. Most other colonies had also begun to limit or prohibit the slave trade by the beginning of the Revolution for similar reasons, including New Jersey and Delaware, a trend which continued when all but South Carolina and Georgia banned the trade in the aftermath of the Revolution. 

Philadelphia’s enslaved men and women, as part of the region’s hybrid labor force, toiled for masters who in most cases owned only one or two slaves, which limited their ability to interact with other slaves. These small holdings also increased the masters’ ability to control most of their daily routine and limited the development of slave families and a distinct culture.  Despite these arrangements, slaves managed to establish kinship networks around the city and its environs by interacting with one another in the city’s marketplaces and worship services. Ship captains also routinely used slave labor both in their homes as well as on their ships which allowed these slaves to create extensive Atlantic networks that allowed for an exchange of culture, information, and possibly the tools to achieve freedom. On the other hand, slaves who lived in rural areas similarly established these community networks when they traveled with their masters into Philadelphia to sell at the city’s markets or for other business purposes. These networks allowed enslaved Philadelphians to develop their own culture, social customs, and exercise their own religion. In this “underground” world beyond the control of white masters, slaves interacted with each other on a daily basis, forming romantic relationships, sustaining African cultural institutions, and maintaining family connections across long distances. This also allowed slaves to organize in resistance to the institution and advocate for abolition in the late eighteenth century.

Though early historians portrayed slavery in the North as benign, physical force and violence always mediated the master-slave relationship in the Philadelphia region. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, like all other colonies, passed strict regulations to govern enslaved labor in the early eighteenth century. These regulations limited slave movement, provided harsh punishment for violent acts against whites, and established rules for general slave conduct. As in the Caribbean and the American South, resistance took many forms, but running away became the most frequent method.  Slaves left their owners regularly both as a way to reject their masters’ control as well as to maintain kinship ties with distant families and communities. 

Discussions of abolitionism developed in tandem with slavery’s increase. In 1688, four Germantown Quakers protested against African slavery, which mirrored Quaker founder George Fox’s (1624-91) questioning of the institution. However, Quakers continued to hold slaves throughout the colonial period as few believed the practice immoral as long as owners treated their slaves fairly and without violence. In 1776, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banned its members from owning slaves or face disownment from the Society of Friends.

Gradual Abolition Act

Quakers and non-Quaker allies discussed abolition in the midst of the American Revolution. Abolitionists routinely used the same language that Patriots utilized in their quest for freedom from British “tyranny” or “enslavement” to highlight the hypocrisy of owning slaves amidst a crusade for freedom. In Pennsylvania, this revolutionary rhetoric motivated the state legislature to enact the first legislative emancipation in history: the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. However, the Act of 1780 freed no slaves immediately. It only provided freedom for children born to slaves after its enactment. These children labored for their mothers’ masters for twenty-eight years and therefore, in effect, paid slaveholders the cost of their own freedom. These children, an entirely new legal category, entered a society that was unprepared to deal with their eventual freedom.  This led many slaveholders to treat them as slaves, working, beating, and selling them in the same way as their parents.  Slavery, therefore, died a very slow and painful death.

photograph of the President's House

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, public interest in the hstory of slavery during the 1790s at the President’s House at Sixth and Market Streets led to creation of an outdoor exhibit and memorial adjacent to the Liberty Bell Center and within view of Independence Hall. (Photo by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia)

After 1780, the presence of slavery continued to be a concern in Pennsylvania as non-resident slaveholders regularly brought slaves into the state. This became even more problematic when Philadelphia became the nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800 and southern members of Congress arrived in the city with their slaves. George Washington, living in the President’s House, brought nine of his slaves with him. As a non-resident, the 1780 Abolition Act allowed Washington and other slaveholders to bring slaves into Pennsylvania for six months before mandating their freedom. Washington and other masters exploited a loophole in a “sojourner law,” which allowed them to continue to hold slaves in Pennsylvania indefinitely as long as their slaves traveled to another state at least every six months. Washington, for example, had his slaves cross the Delaware into New Jersey to restart the six-month limit or sent them periodically back to Mount Vernon. The extension of slavery that sojourner laws permitted led many abolitionists to call for their repeal in the 1830s and 1840s, thereby exacerbating sectional tensions in the years before the Civil War.

Slavery in New Jersey remained an important institution after the American Revolution as it provided much of the labor to repair the state’s economy after armies laid waste to the state during the war.  By 1790, most of West Jersey (including present-day Sussex, Warren, Morris, Hunterdon, Mercer, Burlington, Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties) was largely free of slavery due to Quaker influence. However, large portions of East Jersey (present-day Passaic, Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Union, Somerset, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties) retained it with some counties counting more than 15 percent of their population as enslaved. Lacking a strong abolitionist presence, New Jersey became the last northern state to adopt a gradual abolition law in 1804. Delaware, on the other hand, discussed gradual abolition but never approved it due to the slave-holding interests in the southern part of the state. However, along with the rest of the upper South, the state relaxed manumission standards and slavery gradually declined in the areas bordering Pennsylvania.

By the 1830s, slavery largely disappeared from the region, though because of the terms of gradual abolition it remained legal in Pennsylvania until 1847 and in New Jersey until 1846.  Over the next several decades, Philadelphia’s status as a port city and its border with slave-holding Maryland and Delaware attracted increasing numbers of fugitive slaves from the South. Free blacks also risked being kidnapped into slavery to feed the hungry labor markets of Louisiana and Mississippi. Concern over kidnapping led white and black Philadelphians to action. For instance, Absalom Jones, a former slave and leading black abolitionist and minister, helped author a 1799 petition with other free blacks to Congress asking for revisions to the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law. When relief did not come from the federal government, Philadelphia’s Mayor Joseph Watson used city resources in the 1820s to recover slaves and freed blacks kidnapped to the South. This new dimension of slavery continued debates over the institution in the state until the Civil War.

James Gigantino is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas.  He is currently working on a book project on slavery and abolition in New Jersey.

Copyright 2012, Rutgers University.

Related Reading

Berlin, Ira.  Many Thousands Gone:  The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1998.

Dunbar, Erica.  A Fragile Freedom:  African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2008.

Essah, Patience.  A House Divided:  Slavery and Emancipation in Delaware, 1638-1865.  Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 1996.

Hodges, Graham.  Root and Branch:  African Americans in New York and East Jersey.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Jackson, Maurice. Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Nash, Gary.  Forging Freedom:  The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1988.

Nash, Gary and Jean Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees:  Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath.  New York:  Oxford, 1991.

Newman, Richard.  The Transformation of American Abolitionism:  Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Soderlund, Jean.  Quakers and Slaves:  A Divided Spirit.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1985.

Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation:  The Abolition of Slavery in the North.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1967.


Afro-Americana Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Special Collections Research Center of Temple University Libraries, Samuel L. Paley Library,  1210 Polett Walk, Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Abolition Society Records (digitized), Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Quaker Meeting Records, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.

Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, Pa.

Places to Visit

African American Museum in Philadelphia, Seventh and Arch Streets, Philadelphia.

Cliveden of the National Trust, 6401 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia.

London Coffee House (Historical Marker), Front Street south of Market Street, Philadelphia.

The President’s House Site, Sixth and Market Streets, Philadelphia.

4 Comments Comments

  1. Love your shared and valuable information. The world needs more of this type detail facts. Appreciation to you for all your research and efforts in bringing us your aggregated findings.
    Blessings in all your future endeavors…

    Warren Haskins Posted January 7, 2016 at 2:21 pm
  2. I’d like to find out more? I’d love to find out some additional information.

    Caribbean Posted April 13, 2016 at 12:26 pm
  3. 1831 ship Brig Commerce arrived in Philadelphia from Cuba
    where is John age 26 arrived as a servant with Henry Shelton.
    So many lost, where is female age 24 arrived on Emily in Penn 1841 with Henry Shelton also
    where is male child age 14 arrivered with Henry Shelton from St Jago on the
    Bark Chief 1844. Where did these people go? were they sold? were they
    put to work in homes?

    d miller Posted January 12, 2018 at 12:49 pm
  4. How can academics and scholars continue to refer to Africans kidnapped, chained, brutalized and
    considered to be on the same level as beasts of burden as slaves? These Black people represented a variety of cultures, religious beliefs and languages. But these scholars continue to take away their humanity by the use of the word slave. These African people were enslaved, that was their condition in the new world not who they were. And, the people who held them in bondage were not masters, they were brutal enslavers. If we accept the premise that language is the mold of the mind, why are we in the 21st century continuing to distort and whitewash the European and American crime against humanity, that should be termed a Holocaust.

    Karen Warrington Posted August 11, 2021 at 9:42 am

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  1. By ExecutedToday.com » 1801: Chloe on July 18, 2014 at 7:42 am

    […] black slaves over that river to New Jersey periodically while he was president, lest they become automatically liberated by residing continuously in Pennsylvania for six-plus […]

  2. […] were openly auctioned on the Market House of Philadelphia. Those “good” white Northerners depicted in the film profited from the plantation system in the […]

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