The Fight for Black Mobility: Traveling to Mid-century Conventions
Although not a native of Pennsylvania (she was born in New Jersey), Rachel Cliff (1806-1885) was one of the few women delegates at the 1855 Colored Convention.1 Cliff’s private life is yet to be recovered. Public records indicate that Rachel Cliff had a son, John Cliff,2 who lived with her between 1839 and 1840.3 City directories from 1874 and 1882 note that Rachel Cliff was the widow of Isaac Cliff and worked as a janitress to support herself.4 Earlier city directories also indicate Isaac Cliff worked as a barber on 108 South 6th Street, a career his son would later pursue as well.5 The same records also allow us to track the family’s home addresses around Philadelphia. For the most part, the family lived and Isaac Cliff worked within the same one-mile area. According to a catalogued entry of her death certificate on Ancestry.com,6 Rachel Cliff died on June 28, 1885 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the Twenty-fourth Ward Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons and was buried in Lebanon Cemetery on June 30, 1885.7
Despite her seemingly ordinary occupation, her presence at the 1855 Colored Convention was anything but, as she was one of only a few women in attendance. Keeping Rachel Cliff’s occupation in mind, her presence at the convention becomes particularly understandable, especially given the convention’s focus on educating African Americans. As a wife and mother working as a “janitrix,” it is likely that Rachel Cliff wanted more opportunities for her child. She understood the benefits of education in terms of uplifting African Americans, given her husband and son’s training as barbers. Interestingly enough, Rachel Cliff’s husband does not appear to have taken any significant part in the convention. This detail provokes an interesting conversation surrounding the distribution of information and the community-building nature of the 1855 Colored Convention. Because she is not noted as participating in any specific convention groups, we cannot be completely sure of whom she met or spent time with while at the convention. However, Rachel Cliff likely returned home to her family with details of the convention speeches and conversations she had with the acquaintances she met there.
The majority of the information available on Rachel Cliff has been included in this biography. While many African American women were excluded from public documents, being represented instead by their husbands, Rachel Cliff’s presence at the 1855 Colored Convention would seem to make her a different case. However, even records of her presence at the 1855 Colored Convention are limited—she is only mentioned once and that is in the listing of delegates. This type of silencing, one could argue, might be due to both her gender and her class position; in all likelihood, unfortunately, her anonymity in life as a working-class African American woman, followed her in death.
Elizabeth A. Boyle, English 634, Spring 2013. Taught by Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.
Edited by Jake Alspaugh, ENGL 641, Spring 2016. Taught by P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.
Edited by Samantha de Vera
- “United States Census, 1870,” FamilySearch, accessed 16 Mar 2013.
- John Cliff, the census records note, worked as a barber. However, two more people are listed as living in Rachel Cliff’s home: Rebecca Brow (32 at the time) and Lewis Brow (14 at the time). While census records do not identify the Brow’s relationship to the Cliff’s, it is possible that Rachel Cliff took on boarders to supplement funds after the death of her husband.
- “United States Census, 1870.”
- She is listed as a “janitrix” or “janitoress”. Ancestry.com, U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989, accessed 15 Mar 2013.
- No image of the original document is available.
- Ancestry.com, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915, accessed 15 Mar 2013.