Louisa Burr (1788-1878)

Pennsylvania counties
Pennsylvania counties
Image courtesy WaterproofPaper.com

On August 24, 2019, African American abolitionist John Pierre Burr was honored and formally acknowledged by the Aaron Burr Family Association as the son of former Vice President Aaron Burr in an unveiling of his headstone at Eden Cemetery near Philadelphia. John Pierre Burr was the younger child of Aaron Burr and Eugenie Beauharnais aka Mary Emmons. His older sister, Louisa Burr, Aaron Burr’s other previously unacknowledged child, is buried nearby.

Louisa Burr was born in either Staten Island, New York, or the West Indies (records vary). She worked as a seamstress and housekeeper for the wealthy Joshua Francis Fisher family of Philadelphia from the age of fifteen until her death in her nineties. The Fisher family considered Louisa a beloved “family” member and provided her with an annuity and medical services after she retired. Their benevolence continued into the third generation when they financially assisted Louisa’s granddaughters in 1897 and 1909.

In her late twenties Louisa Burr married Francis Webb (1788-1829), a founding member of the Pennsylvania Augustine Education Society (1818), secretary of the Haytien Emigration Society, and distribution agent for Freedom’s Journal, the first African American-owned newspaper in the United States. The Webb family emigrated to Haiti in 1824 but returned to Philadelphia two years later as part of a reverse migration of thousands of disillusioned immigrants.

Five years later, at the time that her husband died of unknown causes in 1829, Louisa Burr Webb had four surviving children: Elizabeth Susan Webb, Ann A. Webb, John G. Webb, and the youngest of the family, Frank J. Webb, the future author of the second African American novel, The Garies and Their Friends, published in 1857.

The Webb children were raised and educated among their cousins and uncle, abolitionist John Pierre Burr, and with the Amy and Joseph Cassey family of Philadelphia. Louisa’s eldest daughter Elizabeth Webb spent her entire life working for equal rights in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Her son John G. Webb married Annie Wood, the mixed-race granddaughter of a governor of North Carolina and the only maternal aunt of abolitionist Charlotte Forten; their son became a barber like his uncle, John Pierre Burr, and their five daughters all became teachers.

Louisa Burr Webb lived a double life: fully immersed in Philadelphia’s African American anti-slavery community, she also lived simultaneously and intimately with a wealthy white Philadelphia family with southern sympathies. This unique social perspective has not been lost to history. Her son, Frank J. Webb, in his novel The Garies and Their Friends, captured for posterity many aspects of Louisa Burr Webb’s domestic life as well as the African American community’s experience during the 1830s Philadelphia race riots. Like many African American women in the nineteenth century whose lives appear to be undocumented, Louisa Burr Webb’s contributions to equal rights are not invisible if one looks hard enough at the people whose lives she informed.