Is My Family Linked to America’s 1st Black Episcopal Church?

St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, 1829 
The Episcopal Church
St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, 1829 
The Episcopal Church

Dear Professor Gates:

I found a death return on FamilySearch for a 60-year-old named George White who was buried the week of Aug. 28, 1848, in the churchyard cemetery of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia. I wonder if this is my ancestor. And, if so, could there be a relationship to William White, one of the founding members of the Episcopal Church in America, as well as to the Free African Society? I have not been able to find any reference online to records for the church. —Yvette LaGonterie


If your ancestor George White was involved in the Free African Society and was related to white Episcopalian Bishop William White, it is a heritage of which you should be proud, indeed. The society was founded in Philadelphia in 1787 as a black self-help organization to address the needs and concerns of the formerly enslaved. According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Absalom Jones was among its founders, along with preacher Richard Allen.

In 1802 Jones was the first person of African descent to be ordained an Episcopal priest in the United States, by none other than Bishop William White. White, who was among the first American bishops in the church, also served as chaplain of the Continental Congress and, later, the Senate. In 1792 the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas became the first black Episcopal church in the U.S. It descended from the Free African Church formed that same year when Jones and Allen led a protest of black congregants out of St. George’s Methodist Church, which had discriminated against them, according to St. Thomas’ website.

Over the course of your research, you located the 1925 obituary of your great-great-grandmother Anna Elizabeth White (Forman) Powers, which mentions several members of her family. It is noted in this obituary that she was the granddaughter of Dr. George Christopher White and Martha Cecilia White.

So we face a couple of questions:

* Is your ancestor Dr. White the same person as the George White buried at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas cemetery in Philadelphia?

* Is the George White buried at that church related to Bishop William White?

Who Is the George White in That Church Cemetery?

A death notice was published on page 2 of the Aug. 28, 1848, edition of the Public Ledger (Philadelphia) newspaper announcing the death of George White, who died in the 60th year of his age two days earlier. His date of death and age correspond with the information on the death return (registration required to view) you located. None of George White’s relatives are listed in this death notice, but it is noted that his funeral took place from his residence, 122 Lombard St. Based on his age at the time of his death, he was born circa 1788.


Since census records prior to 1850 do not list every member of the household by name, city directories can be a useful substitute for establishing who resided in a particular household. The death notice of George White listed his residence as Lombard Street, and a check of A. McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory for 1847 (which we found online at Fold3) shows a George White, whose occupation was “porter,” residing at 122 Lombard St. in 1847.

There are several other listings for the name George White, but none of the professions listed for these individuals indicate that they held the title of doctor, as listed in your great-great-grandmother’s obituary. We checked the 1849 directory to see if any other family members by the name of White were listed at 122 Lombard St. after George White’s death, but no one with that surname was listed at 122 Lombard. It would seem unlikely that George White of Lombard Street, who was a porter, would be your ancestor.


Does Your Family Have a Connection to That Church or to William White, Anyway?

You note that you have been unable to locate references to the church records of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania recently posted a blog entry on its website about this church, which describes the types of records held in the church’s archives. The church’s archives contain records that date to the late 1700s, and its collection also includes a few financial documents pertaining to the Free African Society. According to the church’s website, the church also has a historical society, which was established in 1982. Although the George White who was buried in this church’s cemetery in 1848 may not have been your ancestor, you may wish to contact this church to learn more about these records, in the event that members of your family attended this church.


Another valuable source for your research is published family genealogies. A number of these genealogies can be found by a search of Internet Archive and Google Books. One book of interest is Genesis of the White Family, compiled by Emma Siggins White and published in 1920. Included in this publication is a biographical sketch of the family of Bishop William White. No one by the name of Dr. George Christopher White is mentioned in this book. However, you could check it to see if any of the other names listed match the names and time frames in your own family tree.

One other option would be to determine if you are related to an established descendant of Bishop William White through autosomal DNA testing. Several companies—including FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA—offer this test and automatically connect you to people with whom you share long segments of identical DNA (meaning that you descend from a recent common ancestor).


So Who Was Your Ancestor, Dr. White, Anyway?

Because your family resided in the Philadelphia area, checking the collections available at area libraries and archives may lead to the discovery of additional information on members of your White family. In addition to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia City Archives and the Free Library of Philadelphia may have various manuscripts or family genealogies among their local history and genealogy collections that would help you learn more about the family of Dr. White.


If you have not done so already, searching Philadelphia probate records may also help you trace your White family back to the earlier generations. The Family History Library has a number of microfilmed records that are available for interlibrary loan rental, including the will indexes for Philadelphia covering the years 1682-1900. Check FamilySearch to see what’s available. In the event that you locate probate documents that pertain to George Christopher White, you will then be able to search for death notices or obituaries, as well as death records that may provide additional information on the earlier generations of your White family.

Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.