James Dexter's House: James Oronoko Dexter — Forgotten Founding Father of Black America
James Dexter played a huge role in the Black community of Philadelphia, but very little was known about him. That was until the National Constitution Center was built on the site of his home at 134 N 5th St. 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. He paid 50 pounds for his freedom, while an unknown tavern keeper, paid another 50 pounds. The tavern keeper may have been his master’s mother or his employer.
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. According to censuses, Dexter housed some boarders, who were possibly other free Black men.
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. With the Free African Society he also helped to nurse the sick and bury the dead during the Yellow Fever outbreak in 1973.
Much of his story and contributions had since been forgotten. When the National Constitution Center was being built, his life-story and significance were uncovered. At first, the Park Service decided not to excavate the site. Then the connection between James Dexter and the Free African Society was discovered. Once the importance of the site in African-American history was realized, archeologists came to dig. Most of what they discovered was pieces of pottery and animal bones from meals. These findings revealed how wealthy James Dexter was. He could afford expensive dishes and cuts of meat, though at the same time, bones from pig’s feet, a typical slave meal, were also found.
Despite the research, there are many gaps in James Dexter’s life. No one knows how he died or if he had any children. What we do know, however, shows that he was an extremely important figure in the Black community in Philadelphia.
- Douglass, William. Annals of the first African church, in the United States of America, now styled the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia : in its connection with the early struggles of the colored people to improve their condition, with the co-operation of the Friends, and other philanthropists : partly derived from the minutes of a beneficial society, established by Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and others, in 1787, and partly from the minutes of the aforesaid church. Philadelphia : King & Baird, Printers, 1862.
- Yamin, Rebecca. Digging in the City of Brotherly Love: Stories from Philadelphia Archaeology. Sheridan Books: Ann Arbor, .