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Who was America’s first known black clockmaker?

In 1781 the first known black clockmaker in America, and the only black clock-maker known to have worked in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was Peter Hill (1767–1820). He was one of the few blacks who opened a small business. Other black entrepreneurs of this period were barbers, restaurateurs caterers, merchants, and tailors. Since Hill was not an inventor, his contribution to the art of clockmaking was minor, yet his historic achievement as America’s first black clockmaker is significant. Born on July 19, 1767, probably on the property of Quaker clockmaker Joseph Hollinshead Jr., Peter Hill was the son of Hollinshead’s slaves. To provide assistance in his shop, Hollinshead trained Hill in the craft of clockmaking. Hollinshead followed the custom of local Quakers, who dedicated themselves to enhancing the lives of blacks by teaching them certain skills. From the time he was fourteen until he was twenty-one, Hill served a form of an apprenticeship with his master. After that Hill may have been a salaried, skilled shop assistant or a journeyman clock-maker. Since Hill was paid for his work, he earned enough money to buy his freedom, and in 1794 the master freed his twenty-seven-year-old mulatto slave. Hill married Tina Lewis on September 9, 1795, four months after he was manumitted; he purchased her freedom as well. While the date on which he opened his first shop is unclear, it is known that Hill opened a shop before he was freed, some time before 1795. Records locating Hill’s shop in different locations lead to confusion; however, he lived and worked in Burlington Township, New Jersey, and later in Mount Holly. He operated a clockmaking business in Burlington Township for twenty-three years. He bought land at various times between 1801 and 1811, and his prosperity increased during these years. By 1814, however, he and his wife may not have fared as well and sold some of their land. By 1820 the Hills had purchased a new house and several buildings, suggesting that the family prospered again. Hill enjoyed his new home and surroundings only briefly before he died in December 1820. His wife may have died around the same time. Hill was buried in the Society of Friends’ Burial-Ground near the Friends Meeting House in Burlington Township, across the street from one of Hill’s residences and shops. Five of Peter Hill’s clocks are known to be extant; they contain eight-day striking movements. Hill’s work and skill demonstrate a rare accomplishment for a black man in early American history.


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