Philadelphia reveals untold chapters in the nation’s history, including the challenges, injustices, accomplishments, and contributions of Africans and African-Americans during the United States’ early years. This year, the National Constitution Center commemorates the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (the original document is on display) and the beginning of the Reconstruction Era.
Visitors to America’s “Most Historic Square Mile” can discover the more complete story of African-Americans at these moving sites:
Museums & Attractions:
- The African American Museum in Philadelphia, founded in 1976, is the first institution built by a major U.S. city to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage and culture of African-Americans. The museum takes a fresh and bold look at the stories of African-Americans and their role in the founding of the nation through the core exhibit Audacious Freedom. Other exhibits and programs explore the history, stories and cultures of those of African descent throughout the African diaspora. 701 Arch Street, (215) 574-0380, aampmuseum.org
- At Independence Seaport Museum, Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River uses the city’s eastern river to uncover the African experience in Philadelphia, along the themes of enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow and Civil Rights. The 300-year story unfolds through recently uncovered artifacts from the museum’s own collection and compelling first-person accounts. Penn’s Landing, 211 S. Columbus Boulevard, (215) 413-8655, phillyseaport.org
- The Liberty Bell Center examines the connection between the Liberty Bell and African-American history. Exhibitions, videos and interactive displays explain how the abolitionist movement adopted the icon of freedom based on the inscribed quote from Leviticus—“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”—as a symbol of its anti-slavery activities. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Liberty Bell traveled around the country to expositions to help heal the divisions of the Civil War. It reminded Americans of earlier days when they worked together for independence. 5th & Chestnut Streets, (215) 965-2305, nps.gov/inde
- Founded by Bishop Richard Allen in 1794, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church sits on the oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African-Americans and is the “Mother” church of the nation’s first black denomination. The museum houses artifacts dating back to the original building and traces the history and international growth of the A.M.E. church. Bishop Allen’s tomb is also in the museum, and free tours are available almost daily. 419 S. 6th Street, (215) 925-0616, motherbethel.org
- The National Constitution Center houses an extremely rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The document that set a precedent for the abolition of slavery is permanently on display in the Civil War exhibition, which examines the turning-point year of 1863. Through hands-on activities, the museum also showcases the contributions of historically significant African-Americans; delves into pivotal Supreme Court cases, such as Dred Scott v. Sanford and Brown v. Board of Education; and explores the passage of constitutional amendments that established rights for all citizens. A more modern highlight: the original, signed copy of Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered in 2008 at the National Constitution Center. 525 Arch Street, (215) 409-6700, constitutioncenter.org
- The National Liberty Museum examines the enduring story of liberty, both in history and the present. The Heroes From Around the World gallery spotlights notable people from all walks of life and time periods who protected and advanced freedom—including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson. Heroes of Liberty features teachers, students, police officers, firefighters and other ordinary citizens who use their voices and talents to advocate for positive change, as well as a special section around students’ ideas about freedom after watching the film “Selma.” 321 Chestnut Street, (215) 925-2800, libertymuseum.org
- At The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, visitors see structural fragments of the home where Presidents Washington and Adams lived during their terms and where the first president kept nine enslaved Africans. The open-air Independence National Historical Park site, located just steps from the Liberty Bell Center, invites people to learn about the events that transpired through illustrated glass panels and video re-enactments. Visitors then can partake in silent reflection. 6th & Market Streets, (215) 965-2305, nps.gov/inde
All Over Historic Philadelphia:
- Throughout Historic Philadelphia—and the entire city and state, in fact—Historical Markers capture the stories of people, places and events that shaped our country. The blue signs act as mini-history lessons about notables, including: Free African Society (6th & Lombard Streets), an organization that fostered identity, leadership and unity among black people; James Forten (336 Lombard Street), a wealthy sailmaker who employed multi-racial craftsmen and championed reform causes; Joseph and Amy Cassey (4th Street between Chestnut & Market Streets), a prominent African-American couple that founded intellectual and benevolent societies for black people; Pennsylvania Abolition Society (Front Street between Walnut & Chestnut Streets), the first American abolition society; Pennsylvania Hall (6th Street between Race & Arch Streets), a meeting place for abolitionists that was burned to the ground three days after it first opened; Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (5th & Arch Streets), organized by Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott; and W. E. B. Du Bois (6th & Rodman Streets), an activist, author, and co-founder of the NAACP. pahistoricalmarkers.com
- People of all ages can perch on Once Upon A Nation’s Storytelling Benches at 10 locations around Historic Philadelphia. Professional storytellers regale their audiences with tales of the well-known and not-so-well-known people who shaped America’s history, including Henry “Box” Brown, who packed himself in a wooden box and shipped himself north to escape slavery. After a grueling 37-hour journey, he emerged as a free man in Philadelphia. Benches are open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. (215) 629-4026, historicphiladelphia.org
On Greater Philadelphia’s official visitor website and blog, visitphilly.com and uwishunu.com, visitors can explore things to do, upcoming events, themed itineraries and hotel packages. Compelling photography and videos, interactive maps and detailed visitor information make the sites effective trip-planning tools. Along with Visit Philly social media channels, the online platforms communicate directly with consumers. Travelers can also call and stop into the Independence Visitor Center for additional information and tickets.