Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia Caterer Thomas J. Dorsey

By Conrad, Sharron Wilkins | American Visions, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia Caterer Thomas J. Dorsey


Conrad, Sharron Wilkins, American Visions


Perhaps no other city in post-colonial America afforded African Americans as much social, economic and political opportunity as did Philadelphia. In the 50 years following the American Revolution, the city became home to the largest concentration of free blacks in the North. But as the 19th century wore on, it became obvious that white citizens of the City of Brotherly Love would accept African Americans only on certain terms. In the economic sphere, the city's growing immigrant population forced blacks out of the skilled professions and likewise hindered their chances at employment in the emerging industrial economy. Many African Americans adjusted to the contraction of their economic sphere by excelling in the service sector. Catering was one of the fields where African Americans distinguished themselves.

Philadelphia's African-American population managed to dominate the catering industry in the 19th century. W.E.B. Du Bois, in his seminal study The Philadelphia Negro (Schocken Press, 1967), declared the African-American caterers "as remarkable a trade guild as ever ruled in a medieval city. [The caterers] took complete leadership of the bewildered group of Negroes, and led them steadily on to a degree of affluence, culture and respect such as has probably never been surpassed in the history of the Negro in America." One of the wealthiest and most influential of these caterers was Thomas J. Dorsey (1812-1875).

Born a slave in Maryland, Dorsey escaped from bondage and carved a place for himself within Philadelphia's emerging African-American elite. Like many African Americans in the 19th century, Dorsey had made his way North as a fugitive. Although the census reported nearly 11,000 free blacks living in Philadelphia in 1810, it was estimated by a committee appointed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives that there were at least another 4,000 fugitive slaves seeking refuge in the city.

When Dorsey arrived in Philadelphia in 1836, Pennsylvania's free black community was waging a political battle against infringements of its members' political and social rights. The Pennsylvania Legislature had been debating a bill that would prohibit African Americans from migrating into the state. This bill, before the Legislature in 1832, would also require all free blacks in the state to carry identification passes. Although this bill was never ratified, the African-American population was given a more devastating political blow in 1837, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinterpreted the state constitution to deny free blacks the right to vote. Pennsylvania's free blacks were not re-enfranchised until 1870.

The tenuous position of Philadelphia's free black population was further complicated by racial aggression in the city. African Americans in Philadelphia were the victims of five race riots between 1834 and 1842 alone. The majority of these attacks were instigated by newly arrived Irish immigrants, who were in direct competition with blacks for work in the limited unskilled employment sectors that free blacks had dominated.

Despite the political and social upheaval in the city during this period, the Philadelphia where Dorsey sought to live as a free man was not entirely bleak. The 1830s saw an increase in people dedicated to the abolitionist crusade. The creation of the American Anti-Slavery Society; the efforts of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society; the distribution of William Lloyd Garrison's fiery newspaper, The Liberator, and the genesis of a national black convention movement were all promising signs for Philadelphia's African-American community. The overall success of the city's free black population can be measured to a certain extent--in its astonishing growth in the early decades of the 19th century, from 11,891 in 1820 to 15,624 in 1830--an increase of over 31 percent.

After he arrived in Philadelphia, having officially won his freedom in Baltimore, Dorsey needed to find employment. …

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