Dr. J. J. Gould Bias

Dr. James Joshua Gould Bias (1807-1860) was an abolitionist, preacher, and active participant in the Underground Railroad. He was born into slavery in Maryland. Bias acquired medical knowledge while working for a physician. After securing his freedom, he moved to Philadelphia with his wife, Eliza Bias.1 He attended the Eclectic Medical College in Philadelphia and graduated from the institution in 1852.2 Bias was one of the few African American doctors able to obtain formal medical training during the period.3 He set up practice in Philadelphia, providing medical and dental services to Black residents.1

Eclectic Medical College of Philadelphia

Eclectic Medical College (former Philadelphia University of Medicine and Surgery), where Bias studied medicine. 

Philadelphia University of Medicine and Surgery, 1868. Courtesy of Stereograph Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia

 Devoted to aiding fugitives, Bias welcomed the wearied and the sick into his home, tending to their medical needs. Activist and former slave William Parker recalls Bias’s kindness to a fugitive named George: “[George] was nursed and attended by the late Dr. James Joshua Gould Bias, one of the faithful few, whose labors for the oppressed will never be forgotten, and whose heart, purse, and hand were always open to the poor, flying slave. God has blessed him, and his reward is obtained.”Parker’s book, The Freedman’s Story: In Two Parts, is one of the few to acknowledge Bias’s invaluable contribution. The Freedman’s Story was published six years after Bias’s death. Parker understood that linking Bias’s name to the Underground Railroad before the doctor’s death would have had legal repercussions, but clearly Parker’s single encounter with Bias was enough to compel Parker to honor the doctor’s memory.   

Bias played an active role in the Colored Conventions movement and was a leading figure in Philadelphia's activist community. He held a number of different positions at the conventions including chair, vice president, and member of the Committee on Education.4 Bias was extremely active outside of the conventions as well. He was a founding member of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which assisted thousands of enslaved Blacks seeking freedom. Bias was influential in the Black religious community as a preacher at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where he supported female requests to preach.5 Moreover, he played an integral role in the growth of Black fraternal orders as a member of both the Odd Fellows and the Masons alongside other African American leaders David Bowser and Jonathan Davis.6 Relatively little of his writing remains today, and his major 1859 work, "Synopsis of Phrenology, and the Phrenological Developments," did not survive. However, later Black scholars utilized his research to disprove alleged scientific evidence of Black inferiority.7

Dr. J. J. Gould Bias, along with Martin Delaney and other African American activists, endorsed emigration but denounced the American Colonization Society (ACS). They believed that emigration should not be initiated or controlled by whites. Despite his views on emigration, there is little evidence Bias travelled abroad during his lifetime. He spent the majority of his life in Philadelphia traveling occasionally for conferences and meetings.8 James had ties to a number of other Black activists including Frederick Douglass, Robert Purvis, and Harriet Purvis.9

Dr. Bias is a figure rarely mentioned in historical scholarship although he was extraordinarily well known within Philadelphia's Black community during his life.10 The multitudes of enslaved Blacks whom he assisted demonstrate his valuable historical role and illustrate how deeply influential historical figures can be overlooked by historians. Although little of Bias’s own writing is available for study, his activities and popularity among the city's Blacks help partially fill the many archival silences and give a glimpse into his life and historical significance.


[1] James A Handy. 1902. Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History. (Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, July 24, 2000. Link), 346-7;  Ancestry.com, Philadelphia, "James G. Bias," Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915," Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

[2] While the Eclectic Medical College of Pennsylvania has come to be regarded as a fraudulent enterprise, it was once a reputable medical school. At the time Bias attended, the college was reputable. "Swindling,"Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economic of 19th-Century America, Library Company of Philadelphia, 2012. Link

[3] Martin R. Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Susan Shell, et al eds., (Project Gutenberg 2012), chap. 6.; Charles H. Wesley, "Jonathan Davis and the Rise of Black Fraternal Organizations," The Crisis 84, no. 3 (1977), 113.

[4] William Parker. The Freedman’s Story: In Two Parts. (Documenting the American South. University Library, The U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), 295. Link

[5] "Proceedings of the 1855 National Colored Convention," (Salem: National Standard, 1856), 8, 27; "Selections. The Colored Convention: Report of the Committee on Education," The North Star (Jan 21, 1848), Assessable Archives.

[6] Joseph Cox, Great Black Men of Masonry, (Lincoln: iUniverse, Inc., 2002), 49; Handy, "Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History,"346; Martha S. Jones, All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 75-7.

[7] Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 200; Wesley, "Jonathan Davis and the Rise of Black Fraternal Organizations," 116.

[8] Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, ch. 6; Kelly Miller, A Review of Hoffman's Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro The American Negro Academy, Susan Shell, et al eds.,(Project Gutenberg 2010), 21-2; W.E.B. DuBois, Philadelphia Negro(New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2010), 422. 
[9] Biddle and Dubin, Tasting Freedom, 88, 93. 

[10] Jones, All Bound Up Together, 75-7; "Great Anti-Colonization Meeting" The North Star (April 29, 1852), Accessible Archives; Louis R. Mehlinger, "The Attitude of the Free Negro Toward African Colonization,"Journal of Negro History 1, no. 1 (1916), 180-1.
[11] Handy, Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History, 346-7.


Created by Michael Dickinson, English 634, Spring 2013. Taught by Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.

Edited by Carolyne King, English 641, Spring 2016. Taught by Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware

Edited and Revised by Samantha de Vera