John Pierre Burr

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John Pierre Burr
John Pierre Burr.jpg
John Pierre Burr
Born circa 1792
New Jersey or Pennsylvania, United States
Died April 4, 1864(1864-04-04) (aged 71–72)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Nationality American
Movement African-American Civil Rights Movement
Spouse(s) Hester Elizabeth Emory
Children 9

John Pierre Burr (c. 1792 – April 4, 1864) was an American abolitionist and community leader in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, active in education and civil rights for African Americans. He was an illegitimate child of Aaron Burr, the third U.S. Vice President, and Mary Emmons, an East Indian servant born in Calcutta.

Early life and education

John (Jean) Pierre Burr was born in 1792 in either New Jersey or Philadelphia to Mary Emmons, a.k.a. Eugénie Beauharnais, an East Indian woman said to be from Calcutta.[1] She worked as a servant in the household of politician Aaron Burr and his first wife Theodosia Bartow Prevost. Mary/Eugénie was said to have lived and worked in Haiti or Saint-Domingue before being brought to Philadelphia;[1] an early source said that she was born there.[2] She may have been brought to Philadelphia by Theodosia's first husband, Jacques Marcus Prevost, a British military officer who was stationed in the West Indies in the early 1770s.

A later portrait of Aaron Burr, c.early 1800s
1863 Broadside listing Burr as a speaker calling men of color to arms.

Burr had an older sister, Louisa Charlotte Burr, born 1788, also the daughter of Aaron Burr and Mary Emmons.[1] Louisa Burr worked most of her life as a domestic servant in the household of Philadelphia society matron, Elizabeth Powel Francis Fisher, and after her death, in the home of Mrs. Fisher's only child, Joshua Francis Fisher.[3] Louisa Burr married Francis Webb (1788–1829), a founding member of the Pennsylvania Augustine Education Society, secretary of the Haytien Emigration Society formed in 1824, and distributor of Freedom's Journal from 1827 to 1829.[3] Her son (and John Pierre Burr's nephew), Frank J. Webb, wrote the second published novel by an African American author, The Garies and Their Friends, published in 1857.[3]


Burr worked as a barber in the city of Philadelphia, and by 1818 had his own business, a whites-only barber shop in the front room of his home.[4]

He was an abolitionist, and an active member of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia.[2] As a free state, Pennsylvania had abolished slavery after the Revolution; it offered freedom to those slaves brought to the state voluntarily by their masters. In addition, as it bordered states of the Upper South, the state and its waterways became destinations for fugitive slaves. Burr would hide runaways in his house. Because Burr was of mixed race and light-skinned, he often accompanied refugees to their next stop in the city or environs. If they were questioned by police, Burr would simply say he was taking "his man" (personal servant) out for a walk.

Burr was also an organizer of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, one of several civil rights organizations in which he was active.[2] Burr served on its Vigilance Committee to directly aid fugitive slaves. Together with other members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, Burr helped raise money for the defense of men indicted for treason in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for what was then called the Christiana Riot of 1851, now known as the Christiana Resistance.[2][4] The mixed group of blacks and whites had resisted U.S. Marshals and slaveholders trying to capture fugitive slaves who had been living in southern Pennsylvania; this incident was part of popular resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. After the first suspect was rapidly acquitted, the federal prosecutor dropped charges against the other defendants.[5]

Burr's activities ranged from promoting emigration by American blacks to Haiti after it founded its republic, to serving as an agent for the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, published by William Lloyd Garrison in Boston and distributed nationally. He worked on civil rights, protesting disfranchisement of free blacks by the state legislature in 1838, and sheltering fugitive slaves.

As chairman of the board of the American Moral Reform Society, Burr helped publish its journal, the National Reformer.[2] He was involved in the National Black Convention movement of the early 1830s. Burr served as an officer for the Mechanics' Enterprise Hall, the Moral Reform Retreat (a refuge for black alcoholics), and the Colored Citizens of Philadelphia.[2] He worked with other leaders such as Robert Purvis and Rev. William Catto, father of Octavius Catto.

With associates, Burr founded the Demosthenian Institute of Philadelphia at his home on January 10, 1837.[6] First known as a literary society, its members trained young black men in their early 20s to prepare for public speaking,[7] like a Toastmasters of its time. They took turns preparing and giving speeches, discussed current political topics, and answered questions posed by fellow members. They intended the Institute to be a kind of preparatory school until members gained experience and skills in public speaking. By 1841, the Institute had 42 members, and its library had collected more than 100 scientific and historical works. The Demosthenian Shield, its weekly paper, was first published on June 29, 1841,[7] with some guidance from staff of the Colored American, an established black newspaper of the time.[7] Organizers collected a subscription list of more than 1,000 persons to support the paper before its first issue was published.[7][8]

Burr joined the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, founded by Absalom Jones in 1782 as the first black Episcopal congregation. Burr worked with Jones, who was ordained in 1804 as the first black Episcopal priest, to build the congregation's second church. Burr also helped develop the membership, among whom were many leaders in the black community.

With his activities and leadership skills, Burr became a member of the elite class of free blacks in Philadelphia.[2] He was among those who signed Frederick Douglass's "Men of Color to Arms" poster for recruiting during the Civil War. He also met with members of the Quakers, many of whom supported abolition, such as John Greenleaf Whittier. The poet later wrote about Burr in his letters.[9]

Marriage and family

J. Emory Burr
John Emory Burr, son of John Pierre Burr

In 1817, Burr married Hester Elizabeth ("Hetty") Emory at African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia.

Hetty Burr was the co-founder (with Hetty Reckless) of the Moral Reform Retreat, Philadelphia's first shelter for African American women who were "victims of vice".[10] Hetty also worked in business, having an employment office, and by 1860 was a dressmaker together with her unmarried daughters Elizabeth and Louisa.[2]

John and Hetty Burr had at least nine children, including John Emory, J. Matilda, David, Edward, Martin, Elizabeth, and Louisa. Edward and Martin both worked as carpenters. The family shared a commitment to the antislavery struggle.

John Emory Burr became a barber like his father, and was a Grand Master of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America, a fraternal organization.

According to the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance, the Burr house was at Fifth and Spruce Streets, in the Society Hill area of the city.[11] A Burr descendant places the home instead at Fifth and Locust (then Prune) Streets.[4]


Burr is buried at Olive Cemetery, which is now part of Eden Cemetery near Philadelphia.

He aided many refugees from slavery on the Underground Railroad. Together with his wife and some of their children, he was active in fraternal organizations that worked for education, charity and civil rights for the African-American community.

His descendants Mable Burr Cornish and Louella Burr Mitchell Allen saved and collected documentation, photos and oral histories that recount his period, the First African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and the achievements of him and his family. These have been shared with the Aaron Burr Association and historical societies, to ensure their preservation.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Ip, Greg (October 5, 2005). "Aaron Burr fans find unlikely ally in black descendant". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Willson, Joseph (2000). Winch, Julie, ed. The Elite of Our People: Joseph Willson's Sketches of Black Upper-Class Life in Antebellum Philadelphia. Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 123 n.11. ISBN 0-271-04302-4.
  3. ^ a b c Maillard, Mary (2013). "'Faithfully Drawn from Real Life': Autobiographical Elements in Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends". Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 137 (3): 261–300. JSTOR 10.5215/pennmaghistbio.137.3.0261.
  4. ^ a b c Ballard, Allen B. (2004). One More Day's Journey: The Story of a Family and a People. iUniverse. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-0-595-31802-5.
  5. ^ Anderson, John. "The Christiana Riot of 1851". Archived from the original on 2018-01-09.
  6. ^ "Demosthenian Shield". Colored American. Black Abolitionist Archive, Special Collections, University of Detroit Mercy. July 24, 1841. Archived from the original on 2016-10-11.
  7. ^ a b c d Logan, Shirley Wilson (2008). Liberating Language: Sites of Rhetorical Education in Nineteenth-Century Black America. SIU Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-8093-8712-0.
  8. ^ Porter, Dorothy B. (October 1936). "The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828–1846". The Journal of Negro Education. pp. 555–576. Archived from the original on 2017-03-12 – via Autodidact.
  9. ^ Whittier, John Greenleaf (1894). Pickard, Samuel, ed. Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, Vol. 1.
  10. ^ Haynes, April R. (2015). Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 98, 137. ISBN 978-0-226-28462-0.
  11. ^ "Jean Pierre Burr House". Philadelphia Preservation Alliance. Archived from the original on March 14, 2016.
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