Cyrus Bustill was the grandfather of Sarah Mapps Douglass, whose courage in calling out the Quakers of Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia for their “back bench” treatment of black attenders, was noted in an earlier post. Stories of her grandfather surely encouraged her to “speak her truth.”
Cyrus Bustill was born in Burlington, New Jersey on February 2, 1732. His father, Samuel Bustill, was a white lawyer, and his mother, Parthenia, was one of Samuel’s slaves. Samuel’s wife, Grace, was an active part of his life. Cyrus had four sisters. He described them as being two darker, two lighter, with him in the middle. His early childhood was a happy one at school and at home. He accompanied the family to meeting for worship each Sunday. Though encouraged to free his slaves by his fellow Quakers, Samuel Bustill, did not.
Samuel Bustill died suddenly when Cyrus was ten years old. Cyrus and his mother’s ownership was passed to Grace Bustill. Although circumstances did not change too much, Cyrus recognized that he had to take charge of his future. He asked to be apprenticed to a tradesman so he could gain skills, earn money, and purchase his freedom. His requested was granted, and he was sold to a Quaker friend of his father’s, Thomas Pryor, a baker. Cyrus was freed in 1769, one of a hundred slaves freed between 1763-1769 in the Burlington Quarterly Meeting.
He opened a bakery and gained a reputation for honest practices and good bread. During the Revolutionary War, he was one of the bakers recruited by Thomas Ludwick to supply bread to the troops at Valley Forge. Cyrus saw this as a patriotic duty, not a distraction from his Quaker beliefs. The family tradition describes a personal appreciation from Thomas Falconer, head of supplies for the troops, and a gold coin reward from George Washington.
Following the war, he moved his family to Philadelphia, where he and his wife Elizabeth set up their household and his bakery. Elizabeth had also been attending Quaker meeting since her childhood. Her mother was a Native American woman, Satterthwait, and her father, Richard Morey, the son of the Quaker appointed by William Penn as the first mayor of Philadelphia. Cyrus built up a successful business and became a leader in the African American community. He and his family regularly attended the Arch Street Meeting.
Cyrus’s clientele included both white and black families, all of whom he treated with dignity and respect. He was concerned about the treatment of blacks in the city and joined with other members of his community to found the Free African Society. This group promoted education for the children of their families, care for the poor, and protection from capture of runaway slaves. He participated in the underground railroad and helped found the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church even though he continued to attend Arch Street Meeting.
My favorite story about Cyrus Bustill led to the title of this post. One day he was driving his wagon along a country road to make a delivery. He encountered a buggy that was moving along the same road, rather slowly but fast enough to kick up dust in his face and on his goods. Soon he recognized the driver as a local judge, accustomed to tarry as he chose feeling certain in his social position. Cyrus decided he had eaten enough dust, encouraged his horses, and passed the judge, leaving him to “eat dust.” He knew his was as good a man as any other. The judge recognized Cyrus and shouted to him that he would buy no more bread at his shop. Cyrus shouted, “So be it, Judge,” in return. Later, the Judge, missing his tasty bread, returned to Cyrus’ shop, purchased bread, and became his friend. Both men understood each other and the situation, but showed dignity and respect.
Cyrus Bustill’s legacy and influence in the African American community was large. His abolition activities were carried on by his daughter Grace and her daughter Sarah Mapps Douglass and by his grandson David Bustill Bowser, who was also a portrait painter of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown. Another grandson Robert became a portrait painter and was asked to come to England to do a portrait of Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State refused him a passport, saying he was not a “citizen.” There were many of the family who followed in his footsteps as an educator, teaching and founding schools for African American children. Perhaps the most famous of his ancestors was Paul Roberson, actor, musician, and civil rights activist.
Questions to consider:
- Do you think it was important that Cyrus Bustill had close relatives in the African American, Native American, and white communities? What do you think he might have taken from each one to shape his character?
- Cyrus Bustill attended Quaker meeting from childhood until his death but was never a member. How did he shape his personal and business activities in line with his beliefs?
- If you had been a Quaker during the Revolutionary War, how would you have responded to a call to supply food to the troops at Valley Forge?
- What do you like about the way Cyrus stood up for himself after his father died and when he found himself behind the judge? Do you find it easy to stand up for yourself with your peers, with your parents, or with your teachers? How do you do it?