Not much left to see, but in the early 1800s this was the location of what became known as “Little Africa”.
In my research for the Locket Saga, I have found numerous amazing historical accounts of African Americans in America’s early history. In honor of Black History Month, this month, I have been sharing some of the accounts that I found from our history and how they relate to the Locket Saga series. This week’s subject is different because I discovered something that had been right under my nose since I was a little child, but of which I had never heard of until recently.
The Underground Railroad
Of course, I learned in grade school that the Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century enslaved people of African descent in the United States in efforts to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives. There is evidence that some of my ancestors may have been a part of this underground railroad or at least knew of it because just a few miles from where I grew up there had been an African American community still known by the locals as “Little Africa”.
End of the Rails: Little Africa
I learned about this place a few years ago, when my brother and I were having a conversation and he brought up the name “Little Africa”. I asked him what it was, and he told me that it was on Jackson Hill which was less than ten miles from where I grew up.
I learned that this was a community of free and escaped blacks. All I could learn from history was that this community was established in Spring Creek Township, Warren County, in Northwestern Pennsylvania prior to the Civil War where fugitive slaves were welcomed on their journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Before 1850, African Americans who had escaped freely lived in that community where they built homes and established crops, not only to eat, but to sell in the market place. However, it makes sense that there are few written accounts of this place. The locals and the escaped slaves wanted to keep it secret so that slave hunters would not be able to locate the fugitives. After The Fugitive Act became law in 1850, that all changed. African Americans could no longer live anywhere in the United States without fear of being sent to southern plantations. Even Free blacks were often kidnapped, their papers destroyed, and sent south to unscrupulous slave traders.
Because of this new law, African Americans fled across the border into Canada because the British government (which Canada was a territory) outlawed slavery. The community was abandoned as a permanent settlement, but the story of “Little Africa” did not end there.
The blacks who crossed the border, continued to help other slaves escape north by maintaining “Little Africa” as a place of refuge. Former slaves who escaped north in the spring would plant crops that the slaves in the summer would cultivate and the slaves of the autumn months would then harvest. This provided slaves who went through there in the winter and those of the following year with sustenance.
Special thanks to Jan Bemis and Diane Miller for the photographs they took on their Facebook group “Wanderlost”!
Read the books of The Locket Saga
Though the Little Africa story is not currently part of The Locket Saga, I do plan to include Little Africa in a future book in the series. It will take me a while to write that book, but if you get started on the rest of the series now, maybe it will be published by the time you get to that book in the series.
In my research for the Locket Saga, I have found numerous amazing historical accounts of African Americans in America’s early history. This month in honor of Black History Month, I want to share some of the accounts that I found from our history and how they relate to the Locket Saga series.
Up to this point in this Black History Month series, I have focused on characters that I already included in the books of The Locket Saga. This week’s focus is William T. Johnson, was a free African American barber of biracial parentage, who lived in Natchez, Mississippi. He will be a prominent character in a yet unwritten book in the series.
Johnson’s Early Years
Johnson was born into slavery sometime in 1809. Because his owner was also named William Johnson, many historians believe that this man may have been his father. William Johnson, the elder, emancipated the young man in 1820. His mother, Amy, had been freed in 1814 and his sister Adelia in 1818. Johnson trained with his brother-in-law James Miller as a barber, and began working in Port Gibson, Mississippi. He returned to Natchez, where he became a successful entrepreneur with a barbershop, bath house, bookstore, and land holdings. Though a former slave, William Johnson went on to own sixteen slaves himself. He began a diary in 1835, which he continued through the remainder of his life. Also in 1835, he married Ann Battle, a free woman of color with a similar background to his. During the following years, they had eleven children. Johnson loaned money to many people, including the governor of Mississippi who had signed his emancipation papers.
Johnson was murdered June 17, 1851 after a boundary dispute, by a mixed-race neighbor named Baylor Winn, in front of Johnson’s son, a free black apprentice, and a slave. Winn was held in prison for two years and brought to trial twice. Johnson was such a well-respected businessman that the outrage over his murder caused the trial to be held in a neighboring town. In that town no one knew Winn, so they didn’t know that he was half-black. Since Mississippi law forbade blacks from testifying against whites in criminal cases, Winn’s defense was that he was half-white and half-Native American, making him white by law. The defense worked, none of the witnesses because of their color could testify, and Winn escaped conviction.
William T. Johnson Museum in Natchez, MS
Johnson’s diary was rediscovered in 1938 and published in 1951. It reveals much of the daily life of a 19th-century Mississippi businessman, including the fact that he was himself later a slaveholder. His papers are archived at Louisiana State University. Through an act of Congress, the home of William Johnson became a part of the Natchez National Historical Park in 1990.
Read the books of The Locket Saga to find where this story will fit
This month I am commemorating Black History Month and this week I am featuring James Forten. As I was researching history regarding Book IV of the Locket Saga, Sailing Under the Black Flag, I came across this amazing man and included him as a major character in the book. I hope you enjoy our second week’s focus for Black History Month.
James Forten was born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was born a free black man. Over the course of his lifetime, he made significant impact upon the fortunes of the American capitalist system and the livelihood of his contemporaries.
He was the son of Thomas and Sarah Forten and was the grandson of slaves. He grew up in Philadelphia and attended Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for “colored” children. By the time he was eight years old, he was working for Robert Bridges’s sail loft with his father. A year later, his father was killed in a boating accident. This tragedy forced the nine-year-old James into the additional responsibility of supporting his family.
Forten’s Military Service.
During his early teens, he worked as a powder boy during the Revolutionary War first in the army and then on the ship, the privateer Royal Lewis. In Book IV of the Locket Saga: Sailing Under the Black Flag, he was powder boy for the protagonist Jonathan Mayford.
Most people don’t know that on privateer ships, every member of the crew from the captain down to the deck hands were considered equal. This equality on the Royal Lewis must have left a strong impression on James Forten because it certainly influenced his character.
Prisoner on the Jersey
Forten may have been raised free, but he could certainly empathize with the slaves who had come to America on slave ships.
As told in this fourth book of The Locket Saga, Forten was captured by the British and held prisoner on the Jersey a prison ship. As the story goes, Forten had arranged to be smuggled off the ship in Gustavua Conyngham’s trunk when he allowed Daniel Brewton, two years younger than he was, take his place in the trunk. It was not until March 25, 1782 that Forten was released.
He would never forget the smell of the prison ship. Years later, he was repairing a sail when he smelled that sickening familiar smell. By then, the slave trade was illegal and Forten threatened to press charges because he knew that the ship had been used in the slave trade.
Making His Fortune
After his mother nursed him back to health, Forten boarded the Commerce, a merchant ship. The ship went to London and he worked there for a year.
In 1785, he returned home to resume his previous job. Pleased with his work and dedication, Bridges appointed him to the foreman’s position in the loft.
In 1798 Bridges decided to retire, and wanted Forten to remain in charge of the loft. His desires were realized. Eventually James owned the business, and employed almost 40 workers.
James married Charlotte VanDive, a woman of Native American, African American, and European blood on December 5, 1805. In 1806, he purchased a brick house at Third and Lombard Streets. Charlotte gave birth to all nine of their children here. In addition to a good home, James ensured that each of them received a good education.
James Forten’s Legacy
Eventually, James Forten became interested in politics and avidly campaigned for and supported the issues of temperance, women’s suffrage, and equal rights for African Americans. In the year 1800, he was the leader in organizing a petition that called for Congress to emancipate all slaves. Given the fact that this was a presidential election year, rumor had it that a few of the presidential candidates (among them Thomas Jefferson) were none too pleased with a Negro man advocating for the emancipation of slaves. His activism was further recognized when he wrote and published a pamphlet denouncing the Pennsylvania legislature for prohibiting the immigration of freed black slaves from other states. Many consider him the “Father of the Abolitionist Movement.”
In 1817 Forten joined with Richard Allen to form the Convention of Color. In the 19th century Allen was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Interestingly, the organization argued for the migration of free black slaves to Canada, but vehemently resisted any movement for a return to the African continent.
James Forten’s early years had been devoted to providing for his widowed mother. As an adult, he focused on acquiring a vast economic fortune and rectifying the brutal injustices that had been perpetrated upon his fellow African Americans, poor people, and women. He believed in liberty for all people and he fought against slavery and for equal rights all of his life. He died on March 4, 1842.
Read Book IV of the Locket Saga: Sailing Under the Black Flag and other books in The Locket Saga
Spoiler Alert: If you like a good whodunit, and haven’t read: When God turned his Head by Cygnet Brown, (you will want to read the book before reading this post as the book was based on the research of the facts of this event. Click here to get your copy.)
The John Codman Murder
In my research for the Locket Saga, I have found numerous amazing historical accounts of African Americans in America’s early history. This month, in honor of Black History Month, I want to share some of the accounts that I found from our history and how they relate to the Locket Saga series.
This week, I want to share the account of the slaves of John Codman who played an important part in my first novel in The Locket Saga: When God Turned His Head.
Slavery Was Not Just in the Southern Colonies
Most people don’t know that Negro slaves were owned in the 1700s, not just in the south, but in every British colony. Most wealthy families owned slaves. Although the nature of slavery in the North differed somewhat from the slavery of the South, there were slaves living in Boston, and in other Massachusetts towns, until 1783, when slavery was legally abolished in Massachusetts.
Boston merchants became rich from their ties to shipping and industries like rum-distilling that were inextricably linked to slavery. The bulk of the sugar imported into North America in the eighteenth century, including the sugar merchants brought back on their ships to be sold to shopkeepers and distillers of rum, came from Caribbean plantations worked by slaves. Robert Howard, the man who first owned what later became known as the Paul Revere House, owned at least one slave, and possibly as many as five. He was a wealthy trade goods merchant of goods that were produced by forced African slave labor in the Caribbean and West Indies. Although Paul Revere never owned slaves, his maternal grandmother had been part owner a slaved named Nulgar.
African slaves in the north, as in the south, were often discontented with their condition and sought to improve it whenever they could. Although free Africans lived in Massachusetts at the time, getting freed was not an easy matter. A law passed in 1703 required slave owners to post a £50 bond for each slave they freed. This bond served as a guarantee that a freed slave would not become a financial burden on the own.
In 1755, John Codman, a former ship’s captain, was a wealthy fifty-eight-year-old slave master and landowner in Charlestown a slave owner was found dead in his bed. It didn’t take long for the authorities to realize that foul play had been involved and that the man had been poisoned.
Because there was both an investigation and a trial, a considerable record exists which allows some insight into the conspirators’ thoughts and motivations.
On July second, the day after Captain Codman’s death, a coroner’s jury found that he died from poison feloniously procured by Mark.
The investigation uncovered the fact that six years earlier, they set fire to his workshop, hoping by the destruction of this building that he would be obliged to sell them, they, in the year 1755, they conspired again to gain his end through poison. At the trial, when the judges asked Phoebe about Mark’s reason for poisoning Codman, she only replied that “he was uneasy and wanted to have another master” and that “he was concerned” for the well-being of herself and Phyllis, another Codman slave. The judges did not press Phoebe for details.
Although it is uncertain whether John Codman was a habitually violent or cruel master, the record does show that Codman, in a fit of rage following the death of his wife in 1752, struck a slave named Tom so hard in the face that one of his eyes was seriously injured. Therefore, the other slaves of the Codman household were subjected to episodes of violence in addition to the inherent trials and tribulations of slavery.
Mark was unhappy because he was separated from his own family. For a time, Codman had allowed Mark to live in Boston with his wife and children if Mark hired himself out for work and provided his master with his wages. However, in February 1748, Boston city officials “warned him out” of Boston and Codman forced him to return to Charlestown and refused to allow his family to join him. Around the same time, Codman either sold or gave one of Mark’s children.
Six years before Codman’s murder, Mark had desperately attempted to compel his master to sell him to another person. In 1749, hoping that he might be sold to a new master who would be kinder and enable him to rejoin his family, Mark and several other slaves burned down Codman’s blacksmith shop and workhouse. Mark hoped that the financial distress would force Codman to sell him. Codman refused to sell any of his slaves.
The idea that they could get away with poisoning Codman came from the idea that the slaves believed that a Mr. Salmon had been poisoned to death by one of his slaves, without anyone discovering of the crime. Mark attempted to get poison first from Kerr, Dr. John Gibbons’ servant, and then to Robin, Dr. William Clarke’s servant. The poison was galena, or plumbum nigrum, a native sulphuret of lead, probably used for a glaze by Charlestown potters.
Kerr refused to give Mark the poison, but Robin got it for Mark two different times along with some arsenic. This poison, Phoebe and Phyllis kept in a vial and from time to time mixed into Codman’s water-gruel and sago and at times was innocently administered to him by one of his daughters. They also mixed with his food some of the ‘black lead,’ which Phyllis seems to have thought was the efficient poison, though it appeared from the testimony that he was killed by the arsenic.
Quaco, — the nominal husband of Phoebe, the servant of Mr. James Dalton, of Boston, and implicated in the murder— was examined before William Stoddard, a justice of the peace, and on the same day Robin was arrested and committed to jail. Later in the month, Mark and Phyllis were questioned by the Attorney-General and Mr. Thaddeus Mason.
The jury found both Phyllis and Mark guilty of murder and petit treason. Petit treason, as distinct from high treason, was the charge brought when a servant was accused of killing his master; a wife her husband; or a clergyman his canonical superior. According to the indictment, only Phillis was charged with murder and petit treason. Mark and Robin were charged with being accessories before the fact. Apparently, the jury found Robin not guilty, as he is not mentioned in the record of the judgment. Mark was found guilty of the greater charge for reasons which are not specified.
Criminal conspiracies were taken very seriously by the Yankees of Massachusetts. According to later accounts, the judges sentenced Phoebe to be transported to the West Indies, although oddly her name does not appear anywhere in the indictment or record of judgment. Mark was hung, and his body tarred and suspended in chains for all to see in Charlestown. Although, in When God Turned His Head, Phyllis was hanged, according to court records, she was burned to death. This case has become well-known as one of only two times in American history when a woman was sentenced to be burned to death. The only one other case in Massachusetts history was when Maria, also an African servant, attempted to murder her owner by setting his house on fire. It is likely the other conspirators were sent to the sugar colonies in the Caribbean to work the fields, a standard form of punishment at the time.
Mark’s Mention later in The Locket Saga
Mark’s body remained chained on the Charleston Neck for twenty years. In my second book of the Locket Saga, Soldiers Don’t Cry, the Locket Saga Continues, there is a scene where Elizabeth Thorton was spooked by the knowledge that Mark’s body was hung in chains on the Charleston Neck. This was based on an account written in Paul Revere’s autobiography where he wrote “After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains,” he was referring to this well-known local landmark along his route through Charlestown (present-day Somerville).
How Can We Relate Today?
The slaves may have been found guilty, but the system was just as guilty for its role in the man’s murder. This story reminds us that there were no innocents in the country as it related to the chattel slave system. The northern colonies was just as inhuman and brutal as that which was later condemned in the South. They were motivated by the same greed that is rules the world today. It also reminds us that everyone desires freedom over slavery and that many will do whatever it takes to reach that place.
When God Turned His Head and Soldiers Don’t Cry, the Locket Saga Continues, as well as the other books in The Locket Saga series can be found