An Early Glimpse of Philadelphia’s Black Entrepreneurs

Image of the Week: A painting of African-American woodcutters captures a vital part of the city’s life at a time when success wasn’t just a dream.

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The relatively large number of black people within the urban area is accounted for by several reasons, most related in one way or another to the institution of slavery. By the terms of the act that abolished slavery in Pennsylvania in 1780, blacks born on or after that date would become free at age 28. For many, freedom came as early as 1808, just before Krimmel painted his watercolor views of the city.

Although many of these new citizens continued to live in economically difficult circumstances, opportunities for advancement were open to all. An emerging black middle class firmly established itself in the city, flourishing as nowhere else in the young nation.

Black abolitionist and businessman, and Philadelphia native, James Forten had begun working as a chimney sweep like those depicted in Krimmel’s scene near Christ Church. By the time this watercolor was made, however, Forten owned the most lucrative sail-making establishment in the city. He soon became one of the richest and most prominent men in Philadelphia, regardless of race. African Americans also excelled at the building trades. It is not hard to imagine the sawyers in Krimmel’s watercolor at work 10 years earlier on the building now appearing so proudly behind them.

Painted 200 years ago, Krimmel’s positive, matter-of-fact views of blacks in Philadelphia record a vital part of the city’s life at a time when aspirations not only ran high but were often achieved. The first real taste of freedom gained by blacks in the early years of the republic proved to be a wellspring for the continuing struggle for their rightful place in a city they had worked so hard to build.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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