By Jade Earle
Signs of Philadelphia’s pivotal place in American history abound on almost every corner – from the print shop of founding father Benjamin Franklin to Independence Hall, the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
The history of Philadelphia is also richly woven with the influence of African-Americans, giving the city of “Brotherly Love” a special significance for NABJ members. Wednesday night marked the official beginning of the 2011 convention with a reception at the U.S. Constitution Center in downtown Philadelphia.
“At every crucial junction, African-Americans shaped the history of Philadelphia,” said Heather Thompson, Ph.D., an American history professor at Temple University.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, black people in Philadelphia became increasingly active in the fight for freedom.
Letters, petitions and poems to promote abolition and demand personal liberty circulated widely in Philadelphia. The city was an important stop on the Underground Railroad; escaped slaves sought food, water and shelter as they fled north. Quakers, like influential couple Samuel and Jennet Rowland Johnson, provided havens for weary slaves on their journeys to freedom.
“There were a lot of people, mainly the Quakers, who were strongly against slavery,” Thompson said. “So, for example, even as late as the 1850s when there was the Fugitive Slave Act, there were enormous protests against that in Philadelphia, whereas in a lot of other northern cities, whites just cooperated and sent runaway slaves back.”
‘Agents of change’
The city also had a support system for free people of color.
Richard Allen, a preacher who had been born into slavery and bought his freedom, established the Free African Society in 1778 with fellow preacher Absalom Jones to provide aid to newly freed slaves. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, which now has more than 3 million members in 39 countries, grew out of the society in 1787. More than two centuries later, Allen’s church, Mother Bethel AME, remains a central point of worship in Philadelphia.
“One of the most important black churches in Philadelphia was founded byRichard Allen and that church still exists today,” Thompson said.
“So, you can really trace out the importance of a strong black — both religious and economic — middle-class from the earliest days of Philadelphia. That then became a magnet for all these later African-American migrants to the city.”
Stories of black Philadelphia leaders, including Allen and many others, have been explored in an exhibit at the African American Museum in Philadelphia since June. “Audacious Freedom” examines 12 historic figures between 1776 and 1876 and their stories that helped shape American history.
“We had people who were agents in freedom and agents of change who were active, vital and very important as community activists,” said Richard Watson, curator of exhibitions at the museum.
“The personas that came out of that period of time, there were just so many,” he said. “Back then, they were left out of history and now we can select a chosen few to highlight what it all meant.”
Watson said the biggest challenge for the museum’s curators was selecting which stories to tell and how to display them in the exhibit.
“Even beyond 1886, we could use this as a platform for evolving people with the idea that social activism and community involvement as it spurred on — even into today’s world of politics and social interactions — has not stopped,” Watson said.
In fact, during the late 1880s, W.E.B DuBois, one of the era’s most influential black thinkers, moved to Philadelphia from Ohio to accept a position as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. DuBois, who was as much of a social activist as he was a sociologist, researched the psychological and sociological effects of race and wrote “The Philadelphia Negro” in 1899.
Thompson, the Temple professor, said the migration of African-Americans to Philadelphia continued after world wars I and II, creating a significant black population that attracted people of various backgrounds.
A musical legacy
With its growth, the city not only cultivated intellectual thought, but also cultivated talent and is an important part of black musical history. Patti LaBelle, who was born in Philadelphia, began singing at the Beulah Baptist Church in southwest Philadelphia. She met Cindy Birdsong, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, forming the group LaBelle. Other artists include opera singer Marian Anderson, Boyz II Men, Chubby Checker, Teddy Pendergrass, Jill Scott and Will Smith.
Philadelphia’s contributions to black history extend far beyond the city limits. People can visit many historically significant landmarks in the city.
The Johnson House still stands in Germantown, providing a window to the history of the Underground Railroad. Mother Bethel AME Church also houses a museum, which is the final resting place for Allen, its founding father.
The sites not only illustrate the journey to freedom for African-Americans, but also the progression of a once-marginalized population.
Sites to Check Out in the City of Brotherly Love
6306 Germantown Ave.
Walk-in tours will be offered Fridays from 10 a.m. -4 p.m. and Saturdays from 1-4 p.m.
The site was the home of a wealthy Quaker family who supported abolition and assisted slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad.
African American Museum in Philadelphia
701 Arch St.
The “Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876” exhibit explores history with video, photography and interactive displays.
The Albert M. Greenfield African American Iconic Images Collection features more than 40 images commemorating black figures including Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson and the Tuskegee Airmen.
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
419 S. Sixth St.
The Richard Allen Museum holds Bishop Allen’s tomb, which the museum boasts as its “most precious holding.” Documents and artifacts chronicling the origin of Mother Bethel are on public display at the museum.
The Freedom Theatre
1346 N. Broad St.
Pennsylvania’s oldest African-American theatre houses numerous performances featuring young aspiring actors participating in the theater’s Performing Arts Training Program.