The James Dexter House stood at the site of the National Constitution Center, specifically, it is to the right of the front entrance where the bus drop-off area begins. To listen to this episode, walk North along 5th Street. Stop on 5th Street, halfway between Arch & Race Street and look towards the Constitution Center.
James Oronoco Dexter was a free African American man who lived at 84 North Fifth Street from 1790 until his death in 1799. Dexter was one of at least six, free, black heads-of-households who lived on the block where the National Constitution Center (NCC) sits today. A coachman and former slave, Dexter was considered an important member of the African community in Philadelphia, but very little was known about him.
Dexter was originally born on the farm of slave-owner Henry Dexter. He was named Oronoko, but later, after he was given to Henry’s son, he assumed his new master’s name when the original James Dexter died. James Oronoko Dexter was hired out to the owner of the Three Tun Tavern to pay off his master’s debt. There he earned tips, which he saved in order to buy his own freedom. In 1767 he paid 50 pounds for his freedom, while an unknown tavern keeper most likely Joseph Yeates, paid another 50 pounds.
Once he was free, he moved to a community of free Blacks within Philadelphia. This group of houses was owned by an abolitionist Quaker family that rented to like-minded people and free Blacks. About 60 other free Blacks lived on the block. From 1790 to 1798, Dexter lived with nine other people in a small rented house on North 5th Street, halfway between Arch and Race Streets. The site is located directly adjacent to the NCC's location in Independence National Historical Park. Today a portion of the bus drop off area for the NCC covers the site. According to censuses, Dexter housed some boarders, who were possibly other free Black men.
Dexter's efforts to aid his community date as early as 1782, when he and five other free Africans signed a petition to the state government to "fence in the Negroes Burying Ground in Potters Field" (now Washington Square).
Dexter made an impact on the community through his work in the Free African Society. He was a founding member along with Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Many of the Society’s meetings also took place in Dexter’s home. Most importantly, the meeting where the Society decided and made plans to open the first Black church in Philadelphia took place in his home. This idea grew into the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in 1794. Dexter was in charge of obtaining some of the bricks for the building of the Church. Along with Allen and Jones, Dexter petitioned for Potter’s Field, a burial ground in Washington Square, to be transferred to a group of free African Americans. Other sources say that the petition was just to fence off the cemetery. Either way, the petition was unsuccessful.
According to an Aug. 14, 1799, issue of the Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser, Dexter died Aug. 8 at the age of 70. Despite the recent research, there are many gaps in James Dexter’s life. No one knows how he died or if he had any children. However, we do know he was an important figure in the Black community of Philadelphia.
The excavations of the site of the National Constitution Center occurred from 2000 to 2003. Initially, the National Park Service decided not to excavate the James Dexter site, wanting to leave it untouched and preserved, the archaeological practice of “preserve in place”. However, once the connection between James Dexter and the Free African Society was discovered the location gained increased public attention. Once the importance of the site in African-American history was realized, the decision was made to excavate in 2003.
During the excavation, archeologists identified 18th and 19th-century foundation walls, four privy pits, and a wooden barrel-lined trash pit. Approximately 27,000 artifacts were recovered during the dig of Dexter's lot. Subsequent analysis revealed that only the barrel-lined trash pit contained artifact deposits dating to Dexter's occupation.
The pit contained nearly 4,000 household objects. Most of these objects discovered were incomplete and found amongst numerous thin layers of soil. Archeologists proposed that the material in the pit accumulated as a result of periodic sweeping, a common African practice, of a dirt yard behind Dexter's house.
The artifacts can give insight into Dexter's daily life. Dexter's household used a range of tableware from inexpensive common vessels to costly imported teaware. As a coachman to a wealthy Philadelphia family, Dexter would have been well paid and could afford to purchase the relatively expensive imported teaware. This would have allowed him to host meetings of the church building community and to serve refreshments on a table set in a style suitable for the dignity of the occasion.
Another discovery were fragments of animal bones from the barrel-lined trash pit. Dexter's household enjoyed a broad diet that included beef, lamb, pork, fish and poultry. A significant portion of the bones represented more costly kinds of cuts of meat. In addition to the evidence of high end cuts of meat, archeologists also found pig's feet bones which was a common component in the diet of the enslaved. The pig's feet bones represent "comfort food" that probably evoked family and identity for the Dexter family.
Sources & Further Information
- Unearthing Philadelphia, National Constitution Center, Google Arts & Culture
- Another Clue Found in the Life & Death of James Oronoko Dexter, at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- James Dexter's House: James Oronoko Dexter — Forgotten Founding Father of Black America
- Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia | Free African Society
- Unexpected Discoveries at the National Constitution Center Site
- Excavation of James Dexter Site
- Free African Society Historical Marker
- Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia | Free Black Communities
- Newfound obituary revives an 18th-century free-black Philadelphian
- James Dexter, a Biographical Sketch