Joseph Cassey was born in the French West Indies in 1789. He arrived in Philadelphia sometime before 1808. Cassey prospered in the barber trade and as a perfumer, wig-maker, and money-lender. His barbershop was located a block from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Cassey amassed an estimated $75,000 fortune by the 1830s to become, after lumber merchant Stephen Smith, the second wealthiest African-American in Philadelphia.
Cassey bought and sold real estate, often with business partner, Robert Purvis, another notable African American Philadelphian. A Bucks County farm outside Philadelphia jointly owned by Cassey and Purvis was visited frequently by abolitionists and women’s rights advocates including Lucretia Mott who described her stay there as an occasion where she was entertained handsomely.
Joseph Cassey owned numerous Philadelphia rental properties including a small apartment in the rear courtyard of what would become the “Cassey House,” at 243 Delancey Street. Joseph’s son, Francis eventually bought the Cassey House and the other houses facing the courtyard at a sheriff’s sale. The Cassey House remained in the Cassey family for 84 years and was home to three generations of Casseys.
The 1820s through 1840s were the highest public profile years for Joseph Cassey in community service. In 1818, he served as an officer at the Pennsylvania Augustine Society which networked him with some of the strongest proponents of Haitian resettlement. He also served as Treasurer to the Haytien Emigration Society of Philadelphia in 1824, a group recruiting free people of color to immigrate to Haiti.
His support for the education of black youth was reflected in his serving as a delegate to the first national convention of colored men which met in Philadelphia in 1831. The convention called for the creation of a College for Colored Youth, to be established in New Haven, Connecticut near Yale University. The proposal met with considerable resistance from New Haven residents who publicly declared they would “resist the establishment of the proposed College…by every lawful means.”
The ill-fated “Canterbury Affair” in 1833-1834 saw Cassey and colleagues supporting Prudence Crandall, a white Quaker who in 1833 opened a school for black girls in Canterbury. Again local opposition formed and Connecticut in 1834 passed a law making it illegal to provide an education for black students. When Crandall refused to obey the law she was arrested and imprisoned. After Crandall won her case on appeal, a white mob attacked the school and threatened her and her female students. Fearing for the safety of the students, Crandall permanently closed the school.
Despite these setbacks Cassey continued his efforts to advance black education. In 1839 he joined with sail maker James Forten and lumber merchant Stephen Smith, to establish a ten year scholarship for poor but deserving black students at the Oneida Institute in upstate New York, one of the few colleges in the nation that accepted African American students. Self-educated, Joseph Cassey’s will listed around 400 volumes of books.
Cassey was also a leading abolitionist and intellectual activist. Introduced to William Lloyd Garrison by James Forten, Cassey became the first agent in Philadelphia for The Liberator, the anti-slavery paper Garrison founded in 1831 in Boston. He also became Vice President of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and served on the Board of the American Anti-Slavery Society from 1834 through 1836. Cassey was Treasurer of the American Moral Reform Society from 1835 to 1841. He and wife Amy were founding members of the Gilbert Lyceum (1841) for scientific and literary interests, the first of its’ kind established by African-Americans and which included both genders. The Lyceum organized lectures on “Physiology, Anatomy, Chemistry & Natural Philosophy”.
Cassey was also a member at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, an officer in the Sons of St. Thomas Benevolent Society, and officer in the nondenominational Benezet Philanthropic Society. Joseph Cassey died in 1848. Upon his death, his will divided his substantial estate between his wife, Amy Matilda Williams Cassey and six surviving children.