top of page
Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Free Black Community

Antebellum Philadelphia was home to the largest free black community in Philadelphia. These lessons explore the ways in which the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) worked with and for that community, providing education and employment assistance in the years following abolition in Pennsylvania and before the Civil War.

The PAS also took an important role in documenting this community through censuses and home visits throughout the antebellum period. Although originally aimed at assessing the needs of this community, today these documents also offer a wonderful window into various structures of the community itself. The free black community in Philadelphia was one of the largest groups of African Americans living in an urban area in the 18th and 19th centuries. This lesson is designed to help students appreciate the breath and diversity of the African American experience in 19th century Philadelphia.


19th century


African American

Ethnic history


Big Ideas

Historical Context

Pennsylvania History

Essential Questions

  • What role does analysis have in historical construction?

  • Why is time and space important to the study of history?


  • Historical comprehension involves evidence-based discussion and explanation, an analysis of sources including multiple points of view, and an ability to read critically to recognize fact from conjecture and evidence from assertion.

  • Historical skills (organizing information chronologically, explaining historical issues, locating sources and investigate materials, synthesizing and evaluating evidence, and developing arguments and interpretations based on evidence) are used by an analytical thinker to create a historical construction.


  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.

  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in Pennsylvania.

  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

Background Material for Teacher

End of Unit Assessment

Write an essay detailing the differences and similarities in the lives of free blacks in Philadelphia before and after the American Civil War. Students should evaluate primary and secondary sources to analyze and compare the experiences of free blacks during the nineteenth century. Students should cite specific textual evidence and draw heavily on evidence from Joseph Willson’s text, the Census of Colored People in Philadelphia, resources from the PAS Board of Education, and Freedman’s Employment Agency Books.


Plans in this Unit

Philadelphia’s Free Black Community

The Demography of Philadelphia’s Free Blacks Community

Census of the Free Black Community

Education, Free Blacks, and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in Antebellum Philadelphia

Emancipation and PAS Support of Philadelphia’s Free Black Labor Force

Grade Level

Middle School

High School

Standards/Eligible Content







PA Core Standards






These materials were made possible with generous support from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, the Lindback Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Project Director: Kathryn Wilson

Content and Lesson Development: Jennifer Coval, Kim Gallon, Kathryn Wilson

HSP Rights and Reproductions: R.A. Friedman, Lou Meehan

Advisory Committee:

  • Richard Newman, Rochester Institute of Technology

  • Julie Winch, University of Massachusetts Boston

  • Dee Andrews, California State University, East Bay

About the Author

This unit was created by Kim Gallon. Updated for SAS by Danielle J. Gross, Education Intern, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.



Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers

Blog Post

New Teaching Tools on Abolition Posted

Lesson Plan

From Fugitive Slaves to Free Americans, 1855 to 1864

Blog Post

New Resources on The Underground Railroad

Unit Plan

The Vigilant Committee and the Underground Railroad

Unit Plan

The Immediate Effects of the Emancipation Proclamation

Attention Teachers!

Let us know how you used this plan and be featured on our site! Submit your story here.

bottom of page