Ignatius “Nace” Beck was a common man forced by prejudiced state of affairs to uncommon levels of accomplishment and action. He was a person of courage, integrity and sound judgment, who was proclaimed “respectable in his appearance and demeanor, and unimpeached by a whisper against his veracity or general character.” He was an individual noted for his piety and temperance. Acknowledged respectfully in his later years by the African American community as “Uncle Beck,” he was a dedicated family man and an early member of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Beck was a trusted associate of its founder, Reverend Richard Allen, who appointed him a “Class Leader.” In addition, Beck was the first chairman (1830) of the Free Produce Society of Philadelphia. The Society advocated for the purchase of food and textiles only raised by the labor of freemen and to boycott those items that were raised by the labors of enslaved men and women.
Buried in the Mother Bethel Burying Ground in 1849 at 75 years of age, he epitomized the African American determination and struggle to exercise control over their destiny. The story of his life adds significantly to the historical record. During a time of violent intolerance and white supremacy, Black Philadelphian citizens like Beck hammered back with tenacity, courage and acumen.’
Ignatius “Nace” Beck was born to an enslaved woman of color on the plantation of Joseph Beck in Prince George’s County, Maryland in 1774 or 1775. Joseph Beck granted emancipation to Ignatius when he reached the age of twenty-five in either 1800 or 1801 depending on the exact date of birth date which is not recorded. The reason for the manumission is not reported.
Ignatius was sixteen years old when Joseph Beck created the legal document that promised the young man his freedom when he reached twenty-five years of age. The document was witnessed and notarized and placed in the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Land Records under the file number “Liber JRM#1, ff. 184-185.” I had the Maryland Genealogical Society perform this research.
The next mention of Ignatius that I can locate is when he became one of approximately 400 slaves that labored on the construction of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., when the city was just a muddy construction site. Ignatius was “rented out” for the year 1798 by Joseph Beck, to the construction company that was erecting the Capitol Building.
According to payment accounts in archives of the Library of Congress records titled RG 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790 – 1951, Joseph Beck received $70 for a year of Ignatius’ labor. His only obligations were to provide a set of adequate clothes and a blanket for Ignatius. His duties could have included foundation digging, timber and stone sawing, brick making, bricklaying and the strenuous hauling that comes from these tasks.
According to author and journalist Jesse Holland there are very few of these African American men who labored on the Capitol Building are able to be tracked after their labors were finished.
Federal archival records show payments for “Negro hire” to assist in the construction of the United States Capitol Building beginning on February 11, 1795 and ending on May 17, 1801. In total there were 385 payments made out during that period. Initially, the contracted annual rate for slaves was $60 which all went to the slave’s owner. The owner’s only obligations were to provide a set of adequate clothes and a blanket which offered little protection against the deadly mosquitoes in summer and the bitter cold in winter. Beck’s duties could have included timber and stone sawing, brick making, bricklaying and the strenuous hauling that comes from these tasks.
Initially, the Beck family lived at an unknown address on south 7th Street in Philadelphia. In 1810 they moved to 14 St. Mary’s Street (now Rodman Street), which runs between 6th and 8th Streets and Lombard and Pine Streets. The tenement was located behind what is now a city playground, Starr Garden Park and within sight of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. Mr. Beck, at approximately 36 years of age, worked out of his home making “blackball.” Beeswax, lampblack and animal fat were mixed in combination to make a substance that was rolled into 1 ounce balls. The predecessor to shoe polish, this “blackball” was used to blacken shoes, boots and military leathers. With the invention of shoe polish in 1800 the use of blackball was only used by certain segments of society. Each maker of blackball had their own formula and Mr. Beck’s must have been was very popular as the city directories have him manufacturing it out of his home until at least 1814.
Residing on St. Mary’s Street in 1810 and struggling with the cost of raising a family, Beck cast his fate to the wind. He was approached by a seemingly respectable and well to do white man, living on Lombard Street, with an offer of employment. Beck was to accompany him as his man servant to North Carolina for a period of time and for this service he would be well paid. Financial circumstances dictating the decision he agreed to the terms and looked forward to the day he could return to his wife and children. The arrangement was going well as the two men approached the border shared by Virginia and North Carolina. They arrived at an inn on a Saturday evening obtaining lodging and food. The next morning, the Sabbath, the white man suggested that Beck might want to accompany a local group of slaves owned by the inn keeper to a Baptist meeting seven miles down the road from the inn. Disposed to do so, he made the journey and returned to the inn that evening only to find his employer had departed. Bewildered, Beck asked the inn keeper how he was to get back home to Philadelphia. He replied that he was home and that he now belonged to him since he purchased him from “his master.”
Now a prisoner in a hostile land the “shrewd and sensible man” did not rebel or fight back against his kidnapper. Temporarily accepting his position he went about convincing the whites around him that he was not a threat to escape or seek revenge. Secretly, Beck went about inquiring if there was a white man in the area who might be sympathetic to his plight. He was told to seek out a local man, a justice of the peace, who “appeared quite friendly.” At great risk he introduced himself to this individual who listened to the history of the case and with “great joy” heard the compassionate man state that “he was willing to render all the assistance in his power.”
The sympathetic magistrate asked Mr. Beck what evidence he might have to prove his claim. He stated that the Reverend Richard Allen, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, would be able to substantiate his claims. The magistrate wrote Allen and told Beck to go back to the inn while they waited for a reply. However, the innkeeper caught wind of the plot and Beck fled to the magistrate’s home where he was kept hidden in the cellar as slave catchers and night riders roamed the country side attempting to collect the bounty on the fugitive’s head. In the intervening time, Reverend Allen received the request from the magistrate and solicited the assistance of Isaac Hopper, an uncompromising Quaker abolitionist and activist who was known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” Allen and Hopper put together the necessary letters and official documents proving that Ignatius was indeed a freeman and a person of “unimpeachable general character.”
The brave magistrate received the documents, but fearing that Beck would not receive justice from the local vigilantes he hatched a plan. The magistrate had his son escort the escapee on a dangerous journey north for 100 miles while dodging the local sheriff and slave catchers. Successful in their mission, Beck was given forged papers by the young, white Virginian “to prosecute the remainder of his journey.” Beck completed his journey home without recorded further incident. After several weeks back in Philadelphia he saw his kidnapper on the street and followed him to his home on Lombard Street. He procured a warrant for his arrest and accompanied the constable to the home of the criminal. But the offender had fled and was never heard of again by Beck or the local abolitionists.
In court documents Beck stated that he was away from Philadelphia during this period from 1810 to 1812.
Soldier in the War of 1812
Martin R. Delany (1812-85) was a historian, journalist, abolitionist, Harvard graduate, physician, and judge. He was the first African American commissioned a major in the Army and widely considered America’s first African American Nationalist, the forerunner of Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X. In his role as historian he wrote and published “one of the most important books to be written by a free African American in the nineteenth century.”
In his seminal work, “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States,” Delany writes of the response and participation of Philadelphia African Americans to the call to arms (picks and shovels actually) by the Reverends Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. With the looming threat of invasion by the British on Philadelphia, the Engineer Corps of the U.S. Army requested assistance from the citizens of Philadelphia in erecting ramparts or breastwork on the west side of the Schuylkill near Gray’s Ferry. The African American community’s response was robust. Primary sources (government documents) do not exist for an official register or list of names for the company of men that responded. Estimates of their numbers range from 1,000 to 2,500. However, Delaney reports from Federal court documents (see footnote # 3) and possibly from oral histories, that Ignatius Beck was one of the “Black Warriors” or “Black Pioneers” of 1812. He would have been approximately 38 years of age.
The Stansbury Case
By 1839, William Stansbury had been an acquaintance of Ignatius Beck for almost 30 years. Stansbury helped Beck moved his furniture into the St. Mary’s Street tenement back in 1810 and on occasion was paid to haul wood up to his apartment and perhaps perform other small jobs. Whereas Beck chose to work out of his home, Stansbury held various jobs on the wharves of the Delaware waterfront. Again, unlike Beck, he was born free in New Bedford, Massachusetts; like Beck, he was one of the African American Philadelphians to join in building the breastworks over the Schuylkill during the War of 1812.
In January of 1839, Mr. Stansbury was “seized in the streets of Philadelphia” by the notorious slave catcher George F. Alberti and accused of being a fugitive, a runaway slave who 23 years previously escaped his Prince George’s County enslavement. Mr. Stansbury’s case was quickly taken up by The Pennsylvania Abolition Society and two highly experience attorneys, Charles Gilpin and David Paul Brown, were charged with defending Mr. Stansbury.
In a landmark case tried before Judge Joseph Hopkinson of the United States District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania in Philadelphia Ignatius Beck was the key witness for the defense. The trial beginning on 31 January 1839 and ending in March of the same year ended with Judge Hopkinson finding that William Stansbury was a freeman and not a fugitive slave. In his ruling, Hopkins stated that Beck was “a very important witness” who was submitted to a “very severe cross-examination” and showed himself to be “respectable in his appearance and demeanor, and unimpeached by a whisper against his veracity or general character.” Ignatius Beck was 65 years of age.
For the next 10 years Beck was employed as a rope maker, chimney sweep, master sweep and a dealer of unspecified material. He would serve his community, church and race well. He would be witness to numerous riots and acts of racial and ethnic violence on and around St. Mary’s Street. Perhaps that is why he moved his family to within sight of Independence Hall and rented the rear of a building at 198 South 5th Street hoping for a more peaceful existence. The area in the 19th century was made up of a diverse group that produced manufactured good as compared to the 18th century when it was a neighborhood of artisans. There were devastating fires in 1851 and 1855 that probably destroyed where the Beck’s had resided. What was built over that land was eventually torn down by bulldozers in 1959 to make way for Independence Mall.
He died on October 14, 1849 at 75 years of age from Tuberculosis. His family asked friends to attend his funeral at the Beck home, 31 Barclay Street (now Delancey Street) bears 6th and Spruce Streets. City directories do not show him listed in business for the last several years of his life. He is buried on Queen Street in the Bethel Burying Ground.