Philadelphia

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1795 List of Unity Pen Slaves
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Historical Society

At the direction of David Barclay, his agents in Jamaica transported 28 African-Jamaican emancipates to Philadelphia. These newly freed Africans, several of them children, arrived on July 22, 1795 on the ship “America.” They were placed in the care of the Quaker Society entitled, the “Pennsylvania Society for the Improvement of the Conditions of Free Blacks.” The group were initially clothed and cared for through Rev. Richard Allen at the recently formed Mother Bethel AME Church and Rev. Absalom Jones of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church also provided aid and shelter. St. Thomas is the first African Episcopal Church in America founded in 1792. Mother Bethel is the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in America founded in 1794.

One of the youngest members of the group is an eight year old boy named October, born around 1788 at Unity Pen. Soon after his arrival to Philadelphia he is renamed Robert Barclay. Young Robert Barclay is placed as an indentured servant for thirteen years as a “Windsor Chair Maker” with a John Chapman. Chapman is a master chair maker and Warden at the Arch Street Quaker Meeting House. By 1808, Chapman is listed as a cabinet maker and by 1830,

Robert Barclay is listed alternatively as cabinet maker and painter. He is living and working in early 19th century Philadelphia’s 7th Ward neighborhood that becomes the largest center for free Blacks in America. On October 12, 1820, Robert Barclay is a part of group of men of color that found the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons in Philadelphia. Later that same year he marries Elizabeth “Eliza” Depee, a free women who’s family had arrived to Philadelphia during the Haitian Revolution and became prominent members of the African Episcopal Church and African Masonic Lodge.

Trades of Colored People in Philadelphia c. 1837

Robert Barclay is listed as a “free colored” cabinet maker and painter in the 1830, 1840, 1850 and 1860 records of Philadelphia living at Little Pine later to be named Minster and Addison Street in the present-day. In the 1837 Register of Trades of Colored People in Philadelphia Robert Barclay is listed as a cabinet-maker working out of 334 South Street with his brother-in-law, Nathaniel Depee who is listed as a Tailor. The 334 South Street location where Depee and Barclay work from is listed as a station on the Underground Rail Road network in Philadelphia. The Underground Rail Road was a secret network for helping enslaved African Americans escape from the South to the North and onto Canada in the years before the American Civil War.

Robert Barclay lives a full and eventful life in antebellum Philadelphia, dying on August 12, 1861 at age 73. He is buried in the historic Olive Cemetery, later combined into the Eden Cemetery which is today the oldest African American owned cemetery in America.