7. Home of James Dexter and the formation of The Free African Society
North across Fourth Street from where you are standing is the National Constitution Center which celebrates a document written in 1787. The Methodist Episcopal Church was established as a denomination in America in 1784 – three years before the U.S. Constitution was signed.
Our main purpose in stopping here, however, is not to recount these famous events of 1784 or 1787, but rather to tell the story of another early friend of the Methodists who is relatively unknown today. A block north of us, near where you might see busses parked on the right side of the National Constitution Center, is where the home of free African American leader Mr. James Dexter once stood.
The National Constitution Center is an ironic backdrop to the Methodist-related story to be told here. The US Constitution, unlike the Declaration of Independence, does not proclaim that “all men are created equal.” In fact, for early abolitionists like James Dexter the US Constitution was seen as a betrayal of the Declaration’s ideals.
After gaining his freedom from slavery in 1767 James Dexter organized the black community of Philadelphia to establish a black burial ground in what is today known as Washington Square a block southwest of Independence Hall. Whites would sometimes refuse blacks’ ability to bury their dead in integrated cemeteries even though rigid neighborhood segregation in Philadelphia was not practiced until the mid-1800s.
In 1787 the Free African Society was established by Dexter, Methodists Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, and others. Richard Allen would soon become the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. A European-American Quaker named Joseph Clarke served as the group’s first treasurer.
The Free African Society provided support for free Africans in a way that the Constitution had failed to do when it was signed the very same year. The Free African Society was a kind of early health and life insurance arrangement for members who contributed regular dues. It also served as a kind of lobbying group for African Americans. The Free African Society was open for all free Africans regardless of religious belief, but members like James Dexter and Richard Allen were starting to talk about forming independent black churches around the time when the Free African Society was formed. In fact, the organizational plans for what became the nation’s first African Episcopal Church, St. Thomas, was drawn up in Dexter’s home in December of 1792.
Members of the Free African Society along with James Dexter and Richard Allen also wrote a petition to the US government around 1792 requesting government funding to support a colony for free African Americans in Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Such a colony had already been successfully established in Sierra Leone in 1792 with the support of Methodist and other evangelical abolitionists from Great Britain. The successful settlement in Sierra Leone was led by Methodist and Baptist African preachers from the American South. It has been described as the first success story in the modern Protestant missionary movement.
There were two sides to this desire for emigration from America. On the one hand, a desire for emigration especially among Christian African Americans contained an evangelistic motive to share the Gospel with West Africans. On the other hand, these emigrationist desires also represented something tragic; even in 1792 some free Africans were skeptical about their chances for opportunity in this new nation with its new Constitution.