Item #8896 [Manuscript deposition of a Black man swearing that he is free, witnessed and additionally sworn by another free Black man.]. Hilary Baker.
[Manuscript deposition of a Black man swearing that he is free, witnessed and additionally sworn by another free Black man.]

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[Manuscript deposition of a Black man swearing that he is free, witnessed and additionally sworn by another free Black man.]

Philadelphia, May 16, 1797. Bifolium, 9” x 7.5”. 1 p., docketed on verso. CONDITION: Very good, light toning and soiling to verso, later pencil notes and discrete red stamp “M M S” to verso.

An eighteenth-century manuscript deposition of a free Black man—possibly intended to serve as a certificate of freedom or a file copy of such—signed by Philadelphia Mayor and prominent abolitionist Hilary Baker.

This deposition attests to the freedom of one John Hill, “a Black man, Five feet and four Inches High, who is very much pit[t]ed with Small pox.” Hill “Personally appeared” before the Philadelphia Mayor, attesting that “he is Twenty Six years old and was born of free Parents at Chester town in the State of Maryland, which is one of the United States of America, and has always resided within the United States.” His statement is corroborated by “Benjamin Clark,” a Black Philadelphia laborer who had been “many years acquainted with the above named John Hill, and with his Parents & Sister (the latter of whom this Deposent courted).” Both men signed the deposition with their marks, and both of their statements are recorded as having been “Sworn this 16th May 1797 before me Hilary Baker, Mayor.”

Free African Americans had long required Certificates of Freedom—from white masters or employers, or from county courts—without which they risked being “mistaken as a fugitive and enslaved” (“Free Communities”). Likewise, sailors needed to carry documents verifying their freedom and citizenship in the United States in case of capture or impressment. These papers described the name, age, color, and height of the free person in question, as well as any other identifying features (in Hill’s case, his smallpox scars). Of course, several people might answer the same general description, a point that many enslaved people took advantage of—Frederick Douglass famously acquired a “seaman’s protection” form from a retired Black sailor and used it during his escape from slavery, as noted in his Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. We locate no other traces of the dispute that prompted this deposition, but it is possible that someone attempted to sell Hill into slavery, as in another case from 1797. The crime of kidnapping and selling free Blacks occurred so frequently that, just three years after this deposition was taken, Black clergymen Absalom James and Richard Allen sent a “Petition of the People of Colour, Freemen within the City and Suburbs of Philadelphia” to Congress, “signed by seventy-three African Americans, which protested ‘the kidnapping those of our Brethren that are free’ and request[ing] congressional action” (Henderson et. al., p. 318). It is notable that Hill’s statement is supported by the testimony of a fellow Black man.

In Philadelphia, legal establishment of freedom became a particularly complex and charged business following the passage of Pennsylvania’s “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” in 1780, and of a significant amendment to it in 1788. These laws required all African Americans born to enslaved mothers to be registered, and freed at the age of twenty-eight; emancipated anyone brought into the state as a slave; punished anyone attempting to kidnap and sell an African American outside the state; and stifled the operation of all aspects of the slave trade, including the outfitting of slave ships. Beginning in 1780, then, Philadelphia naturally became home to a growing population of free African Americans, and between 1790 and 1800, the number of enslaved people of color dropped from over 3,700 to 1,706, while the free Black population grew by 176 percent. In the early 1790s, prominent white abolitionist Benjamin Rush described that group as comprising “3,000 souls. Their men are chiefly waiters, day laborers, and traders in a small way. Their women are chiefly cooks and washer women” (Andrews and Derounian, p. 479). Many free Black Philadelphians belonged to religious congregations, which, during the 1790s, were becoming increasingly independent from white churches. Records of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia from around 1794 show both a “Benjamin Clark” and a “Hill” (no first name given) in lists of “classes,” that is, “evangelical consciousness-raising groups into which Methodist societies were customarily divided” (p. 484).

Among those promoting and enforcing the gradual abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania was Hilary Baker (1746–1798), the mayor of Philadelphia between 1796 and 1797 and signatory of this document. Born in Darmstadt, Germany, Baker became a hardware merchant after immigrating to Philadelphia. He served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary war and rose steadily in politics, starting as a Clerk of the Court of Quarter Sessions in 1779 and going on to become a member of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention in 1787 and an Alderman from 1789 to 1796 before being elected Mayor. He was a staunch abolitionist and a co-founder of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, which was responsible not only for spearheading the 1780 Act but also—appointing itself “watchdog and policeman”—for the new laws’ scrupulous enforcement (Wax, p. 429). Baker established the first paid, uniformed police force in Philadelphia, and died while still holding office during an outbreak of yellow fever in 1798.

Rare early evidence of the legal establishment of an African American’s freedom in a city at “the vanguard of the antislavery movement” (Wax, p. 429).

REFERENCES: Andrews, Dee and Kathryn Zabelle Derounian, “Notes and Documents,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 108, No. 4 (1984); “Chapter 04 : Free Communities of Color” in Slavery & Freedom 1400–1877 at the National Museum of African American History & Culture online; Henderson, John et al. “Notes and Documents: Rescuing African American Kidnapping Victims in Philadelphia as Documented in the Joseph Watson Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 129, No. 3 (2005); Wax, Darold D. “Reform and Revolution: The Movement Against Slavery and the Slave Trade in Revolutionary Pennsylvania,” Western Pennsylvania History, Vol. 57 (1974).

Item #8896

On Hold

Price: $4,500.00

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