Meet Peter Hill, the first African American who broke the color barrier in clockmaking in the 18th century

Peter Hill Tall Case Clock/Photo credit: National Museum of America History

Peter Hill spent seven years of his life as an apprentice understudying Quaker clockmaker, Joseph Hollinshead Jr., to master the craft of making clocks. The fruits of that sacrifice enabled him to break the color barrier in the clock industry in the 18th century to become the first African American clockmaker. Today, two of Peter’s clocks have stood the test of time and bear testimony to his mastery as the only black person in this trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first clock was made for his neighbor, Rowland Jones, in 1812 which sits in the Westtown School, Pennsylvania, and the other one is housed in the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Peter was still enslaved when he began learning the art of clockmaking. Born on July 19, 1767, it is believed his parents were owned by the Quakers, making Peter the property of Joseph Hollinshead Jr. The decision by his master to groom him in the trade was to provide assistance while he dispensed the role of serving his dozens of clientele. The Quakers are however famed for empowering enslaved Africans who served under them with skills in the trade to make them functional members of society. While expressing interest in the trade, Peter began his apprenticeship when he was 14 and graduated when he turned 21.

In 1794, Peter made good his goal of being a free man by raising enough money to buy his freedom. It is believed that he was placed on salary by his master, Hollinshead, when he graduated from his apprenticeship, which he saved for that big moment. He was granted his freedom when he attained the age of 27, which was certified in 1795 by official court documents.

It is unclear when he opened his first shop, but it was already running and in operation before he finally gained his freedom; it is believed to be located in Burlington Township, New Jersey. He later relocated to Mount Hill and operated his clockmaking business in Burlington for 23 years.

When the business became profitable, he bought many landed properties between 1801 and 1811. Driven by sentimental reasons, he later moved his business to Mount Holly to be closer to the Quaker farming community in 1814. There, he extended his income by establishing a paper mill and ironworks business.

While his business was thriving, he considered complementing his life by focusing on family. He married Tina Lewis on September 9, 1795, and later purchased the freedom of his wife when the opportunity presented itself. Tina was a gifted writer and gained a good reputation in New Jersey. She tutored African Americans by giving them free education in the community through the Society of Friends.

Hill decided to expand his influence when his business boomed and purchased new houses and several buildings in February 1820, but sadly passed away in 1820. It is unclear when Tina also died, but historians indicate she also passed away in the same year. Hill was buried in the Society of Friend’s Burial-Ground near the Friend Meeting House in Burlington Township, across the street from one of His residences and shops.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 9, 2023


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates