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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 25, 2010
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

At last, honoring the burial site of 'Black Sam'

The procession will begin at St. Peter's Church, where a simple engraving now memorializes Samuel Fraunces, George Washington's former steward and owner of a famous New York City tavern, who lies buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the churchyard.

"Finally, there is a spot on hallowed ground for us to reflect on," said C.R. Cole, a Fraunces descendant by marriage. "Until now, we had no place to send the kids to learn or pay respects. Now there is a spot."

With several Fraunces descendants planning to attend, the churchyard gathering will begin at noon Saturday at St. Peter's, Third and Pine Streets.

Widely known as "Black Sam" during his lifetime, Fraunces has in recent years become the subject of some debate involving his racial identity. Many in the African American community dismiss scholarly claims that Fraunces was a white man. And at least some of his multihued descendants consider that assertion obtuse.

"The Fraunces family is African in origin," said Cole. "The family totally understands they are mixed racial. Everyone understands that."

Indeed, Cole suggests that Fraunces' grave is unmarked and his accomplishments are unheralded at least in part because of his racial identity.

"How could a family so intertwined with so many individuals associated with the Revolution not be remembered?" Cole asked, and answered: "Because he's mulatto."

Whether or not that has been the case in the past, Fraunces is certainly getting attention now. St. Peter's recently agreed to memorialize him in its churchyard, and money to pay for it was raised in part by black activist groups.

The burial site is the starting point for Saturday's procession, which will move to Front and Market, where slaves were once auctioned outside the old London Coffee House. It will pass Willings Alley, center of the city's 18th-century slave trade, and Sixth and Market, home of Washington's presidency in the 1790s — and of at least nine slaves. The trek ends at Washington Square, then called Congo Square, where blacks were buried and where the living gathered to honor and to celebrate.

Two activist organizations concerned with retrieving the city's African historical legacy, Generations Unlimited and the African Daughters of Fine Lineage, are sponsoring the procession; they also helped raise funds for the churchyard memorial.

Charles Blockson, emeritus curator of the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University and a founder of Generations Unlimited, said the noon commemoration of Fraunces will be the first public recognition of his burial site.

As far as Blockson is concerned, there is no question about the racial identity of the steward and tavern owner: Fraunces was a black man of Haitian descent. He owned Fraunces Tavern in New York City, where Washington bade his troops farewell at the end of the Revolutionary War, and he served as Washington's steward at the President's House from 1791 to 1794.

Fraunces opened a tavern here after that, and died in 1795. Blockson, who has researched Fraunces for decades, is responsible for a state historical marker commemorating the site of Fraunces' last tavern, near Second and Dock Streets.

"My main thrust is to honor Samuel Fraunces," he said, noting that Fraunces was a kind of uber-restaurateur — caterer, chef, manager, tavern-keeper. He even introduced Washington to carrot cake, popularizing it as a dessert.

"He was more than a cook," the historian continued, adding that Washington's celebrated enslaved chef Hercules was taught much of his art by Fraunces and emulated his mentor right down to his affinity for fancy duds.

"Hercules was important," said Blockson, "but even the way he dressed he got from Fraunces."

Cole, a genealogist who lives in Western Pennsylvania, said there were numerous Fraunces descendants in and around New York down to Atlanta, though she did not know how many would attend the churchyard gathering.

"He was right at the center of everything," she said of her ancestor.

Sacaree Rhodes, an organizer of the procession, called it "the trail of blood and tears" and said it would "retrace the path that our ancestors walked as they were transported, bought, and sold just blocks from the site of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell."

Rhodes emphasized that much of the historic district was tainted by past association with slavery.

"As residents and tourists walk the streets of Center City Philadelphia and what is now called Society Hill," she said, "I want them to understand that these streets are where black men, women, and children were bought on auction blocks just feet from where the Liberty Bell is now located."

 

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