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Uncovering Philly’s ‘Black Metropolis’: A Q&A with the creators of a new, innovative history project

The 1838 Black Metropolis online project recently won the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Biennial Innovation Award.

Michiko Quinones (left) and and Morgan Lloyd, cocreators of the 1838 Black Metropolis project, lead a group for a walking tour of Black history sites in Philadelphia.
Michiko Quinones (left) and and Morgan Lloyd, cocreators of the 1838 Black Metropolis project, lead a group for a walking tour of Black history sites in Philadelphia.Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

When Michiko Quinones and Morgan Lloyd first started talking with each other about Black life in antebellum Philadelphia last year, they didn’t plan on developing a popular, award-winning history project.

“We just thought we were two friends who have this silly little thing we’re obsessed with and we’re just going to obsess over it and tell as many people that want to listen,” said Lloyd, a public programming coordinator at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and freelance curator and educator.

But their project, the 1838 Black Metropolis, has become just that. Using the 1838 Census funded by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society as its foundation, Quinones and Lloyd have a created an interactive, historically rich website filled with primary sources and maps, as well as a walking tour series on the community of nearly 20,000 Black people living in Philadelphia at the time, about one-fifth of the city’s population.

Earlier in November, Black Metropolis won the Library Company of Philadelphia’s 2023 Biennial Innovation Award, which includes $2,500 that the cocreators said they will put toward future artistic exhibitions.

“Right around Washington Square, which is like the most expensive part of the city [today], that was a Black town. All those folks were there. It’s a mindblower,” said Quinones, a public historian and museum docent at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.

Their project seeks to fill in this gap in most people’s understanding of Black history before the Civil War, using visuals and elements of Afrofuturism to reclaim the geography of the city and redefine this chapter of Philadelphia’s history.

Quinones and Lloyd spoke with The Inquirer about their project, what the Black Metropolis was really like day to day, and how wealthy free Black people, pirates from West Africa, and freedom seekers on the run formed a unique community.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get into this project, and why did you find this antebellum period of Philadelphia history so compelling?

Michiko Quinones: I’m in a program now in museum studies at the Harvard Extension School, and I found the 1838 Register of Trades for Philadelphia. To give you an idea, 1838 is when Harriet Tubman was 16. This is less than 70 years after the Revolution. But there were 600 Black business listed here.

And I said to myself, ‘Well, a business needs people to go to it, it needs funding and capital.’ So that really is what began the journey of getting to the 1838 Census, realizing that the Black community here was supporting itself in a myriad of ways. It was almost a betrayal. Like, nobody told me about this. I never heard about this. I didn’t get the chance to imagine myself and my ancestors in this way.

If I had seen this as a child, how would that have affected me?

Morgan Lloyd: I met Michiko at the African American Museum and she said, ‘Hey, I found this census.’ We sat down and we ended up talking for an hour. ‘Should we do something? Yeah, let’s do something.’ And then the ball just started rolling.

“I never heard about this. I didn’t get the chance to imagine myself and my ancestors in this way.”

Michiko Quinones

It’s empowering to know that a duality can exist. Yes, Black people were enslaved at this time, but there were free Black people who lived their everyday lives too. We are looking at a period of Philadelphia in history that is typically not the common knowledge.

What was this community like?

MQ: Most of the folks in our area, which is kind of centered at Sixth and Lombard, are Black. Let’s imagine no cars first. So that means there’s going to be the sound of horse hooves on cobblestone, more voices talking because there’s going to be more people on the street. More hustling and bustling.

And people would go to work and then they would come home. They might go to some church activity, they would generally visit each other, eat dinner with one another. The majority of the people were what we would consider working-class, laboring people. There was a smaller group of people who were really impoverished, but a lot less than you’d think at that time. And then there were some who were quite wealthy.

“When we talk about the Black population in the 1838 Census, we’re also looking at people who have diverse Afro experiences.”

Morgan Lloyd

They’re all well-dressed, we have the pictures. And it did not matter how much money you had. I want people to think not so much Bridgerton, I think that’s a little bit too far. But when people got out on the street, they looked good.

ML: What really stands out to me is the kinds of people that lived within it. When we talk about the Black population in the 1838 Census, we’re also looking at people who have diverse Afro experiences. Not everyone descends from enslavement in the ways that we commonly understand it, migrating from the South.

Some people are coming from New Jersey, where they were free before everybody else, anyway. Some people are coming from Greater Pennsylvania. Some people are traveling as Haitian refugees and exiles from the Haitian Revolution. Some folks have Indigenous ancestry, so they speak a myriad of languages and have different experiences. There are pirates that we presume show up with Spanish galleons from West Africa.

This is a culturally rich and diverse place where you can be unapologetically yourself as you figure out what your American dream looked like.

Philadelphia was a crucial point on the Underground Railroad for many freedom seekers, even including Harriet Tubman, who arrived here in 1849. What was their experience like coming through or settling in Philadelphia?

ML: Somewhere in between all of this beauty, there are people hiding in plain sight by way of the Underground Railroad. I love reading William Still’s Journal C of Station No. 2 and these crazy stories about the Railroad. There was a pregnant woman who shipped herself to freedom; she was inside of a package that arrived at a woman’s home. They opened it up and she was darn near comatose. And she woke up eventually, thank God, and gave birth to who will be the first free person in her family’s history.

This is happening simultaneously as the Black Metropolis! You are met with Black people you didn’t know existed. And they’re like, ‘Hey, if you’re smart enough, you can go to school and I’ll teach you Latin, I’ll teach you French. If you’re very skilled, would you like a job with tailoring or hairdressing?’ Northern society at this time is far from perfect. But for many folks, there’s this unapologetic Free African-ness that can’t be missed.

MQ: If you first came to Philadelphia and you were a freedom seeker, one of the first things you would do is join a church. And then you would join a beneficial society — there were like 80 of them, they’re all helping freedom seekers.

We have one primary source that said there were 168 people in 12 safe houses in one night. Witness protection is a good way to think about it. It’s also good to think of it like a sanctuary city.

ML: It’s just networks of people helping each other. And for every escape, for every story I’ve read, there’s at least several, or up to 20 people, who are helping one person get to a new life. It’s so incredible.

To learn more about the 1838 Black Metropolis project, you can visit the website at There, you can find an interactive map of the neighborhood, a timeline, and primary source documents, including the 1838 Census and a searchable spreadsheet version of it. To stay up to date on 1838 Black Metropolis as the founders host more tours and special events in 2024, you can follow them on Instagram and TikTok.