Black history in Philly

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From Mother Bethel to the Marian Anderson Residence Museum, there’s a wealth of early African-American history in this historic city.

SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

PHILADELPHIA – As U.S. history is African-American history, Philadelphia history is African-American history.

The city is home to the founding church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination (201-year-old Mother Bethel A.M.E.) and the country’s first major museum devoted to Black American history (African American Museum in Philadelphia).

 

Landmarks in Philadelphia’s Historic District, from the Liberty Bell to street-side historical markers, tell of the successes, struggles and contributions of African-Americans through the centuries.

Beyond the original city, Philadelphia’s vibrant neighborhoods offer glimpses into the pasts of African-American whose impacts live on today such as the Marian Anderson Residence and Paul Robeson House.

These Philadelphia museums, landmarks, churches and other sites are rich in African-American history.

1. The African American Museum in Philadelphia is in its 40th year.
2. The Johnson House Historic Site was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
3. Colorful South Street is known for its eclectic shops and historic spots.
4. Art Sanctuary spotlights the work of regional and national Black artists.
5. The Marian Anderson Residence Museum contains the singer’s personal items, musical mementos and artifacts.
(PHOTOS COURTESY OF VISIT PHILADELPHIA)

MUSEUMS

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. Now celebrating its 40th year, the museum takes a fresh, bold look at the roles of African-Americans in the founding of the nation through the core exhibit “Audacious Freedom.’’

Other exhibitions and programs reveal the history, stories and cultures of those of African descent throughout the African diaspora. 701 Arch St., 215-574-0380, aampmuseum.org.

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, including enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow and civil rights.

Guest curated by Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, a University of Pennsylvania professor, the exhibit tells a 300-year-old story that unfolds through artifacts from the museum’s own collection and compelling first-person accounts. Penn’s Landing, 211 S. Columbus Boulevard, 215-413-8655,phillyseaport.org.

National Constitution Center
It houses a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The order that declared enslaved persons in rebellious areas of the South free is permanently on display in the Civil War alcove, which examines the turning point year of 1863.

Through self-guided tours and interactive programs, the museum also illustrates the contributions of notable African-Americans; delves into pivotal Supreme Court cases such as Dred Scott v. Sanford and Brown v. Board of Education; and explores the amendments that established rights for all citizens. A more recent highlight: the original, signed copy of Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union’’ speech delivered onsite during his 2008 presidential campaign. 525 Arch St., 215-409-6700, constitutioncenter.org.

National Liberty Museum
The museum presents the enduring story of liberty, both in history and today. The Heroes from Around the World gallery spotlights notable people from all walks of life and time periods who protected and advanced freedom, including well-known figures such as Nelson Mandela and lesser-known people like Gail Gibson, a New Orleans nurse whose bravery helped save lives during Hurricane Katrina.

The Live Like A Hero gallery showcases teachers, students, police officers, firefighters and other ordinary citizens who use their voices and talents to advocate for positive change, and the gallery includes a special section on students’ ideas about freedom after watching the film “Selma.’’ 321 Chestnut St., 215-925-2800, libertymuseum.org.

HISTORIC SITES AND ATTRACTIONS

Historical markers
Throughout Philadelphia and the entire state, historical markers capture the stories of people, places and events that shaped our country. The blue signs act as mini-history lessons, including First Protest Against Slavery (5109 Germantown Ave.), where a group of German Quakers wrote a protest against slavery in 1688; Free African Society (Sixth and Lombard Streets), an organization that fostered identity, leadership and unity among Black people; Pennsylvania Abolition Society (Front Street between Walnut & Chestnut Streets), the first American abolition society; and W.E.B. Du Bois (Sixth and Rodman Streets). More information at pahistoricalmarkers.com.

Johnson House Historic Site
The site is part of the Colonial Germantown Historic District, attained National Historic Landmark recognition for its role in the Underground Railroad. Tours offer visitors an opportunity to learn about the injustices of slavery and the people who risked their lives for others’ freedom, 6306 Germantown Ave., 215-438-1768, johnsonhouse.org.

Liberty Bell Center
Inside the Liberty Bell Center, visitors uncover the connection between the Liberty Bell and African-American history. 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. Fifth and Market Streets, 215-965-2305,nps.gov/inde.

Marian Anderson Residence Museum
An understated façade houses the three-story home of opera singer, humanitarian and civil rights icon Marian Anderson.

The Marian Anderson Residence Museum, listed National Register of Historic Places, reveals the life and work of the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

People can tour the house every day except Sunday. 762 S. Martin St., 215-779-4219, marianandersonhistoricalsociety.weebly.com.

Paul Robeson House
Located in West Philadelphia, the Paul Robeson House served as the residence for the esteemed human rights activist, scholar, attorney, actor, football player and singer during the last decade of his life.

Tours give visitors a chance to hear songs he recorded, learn about Robeson’s politics and discover his life of accomplishments, including his family’s 18th-century roots in Philadelphia. 4951 Walnut St., 215-747-4675, paulrobesonhouse.org.

President’s House
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, and then partake in silent reflection. Sixth and Market Streets, 215-965-2305,nps.gov/inde.

CHURCHES

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church is the mother church of the nation’s first Black denomination.

Christ Church
With Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross and George Washington among its worshippers, Christ Church made history by ordaining Absalom Jones as the country’s first African-American priest (Episcopalian), baptizing 25 percent of the free and enslaved African-Americans in Philadelphia over a 20-year period and helping to establish a school to educate slaves.

Tours of the National Park Service-affiliated church, a National Historic Landmark, occur throughout the day. 20 N. American St., 215-922-1695, christchurchphila.org.

Mother Bethel
Founded by Bishop Richard Allen with the first church building dedicated 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.

Today, Mother Bethel comprises three institutions under one roof: church, museum and archive.

The congregation worships weekly. The museum houses the tomb of Bishop Richard Allen and artifacts dating back to the 1600s. Reservations encouraged for the daily museum tour. 419 S. Sixth St., 215-925-0616,motherbethel.org.

St. George’s
Prior to the establishment of local African-American churches, St. George’s  United Methodist Church welcomed Black worshippers and licensed Richard Allen and Absalom Jones as the first African-American Methodist lay preachers. A dispute over segregated seating policies led to a walkout and the creation of African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.

St. George’s continues to work on amends for previous racial injustices. Portraits, items of worship, manuscripts and artifacts from the church’s early years are on display in the original building, classroom and museum, open Tuesday through Friday, with Saturday tours by appointment and Sunday services. 235 N. Fourth St., 215-925-7788, historicstgeorges.org.

ART AND THEATER

Mural Arts Philadelphia
It has an African American Iconic Images Collection Trolley Tour in its repertoire, available for private bookings. During the two-hour experience, visitors discover the people and stories depicted on the larger-than-life artworks that adorn the city’s buildings and walls. 215-925-3633, muralarts.org.

The Clef Club
It was formed in 1966 through the efforts of Philadelphia’s African-American musicians’ union, Union Local No. 274 of the American Federation of Musicians. With notable members including John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, the social club played a significant role in the advancement of jazz in Philadelphia and the world.

In 1978, it expanded its mission to include jazz performance, instruction and preservation, becoming the nation’s first facility constructed specifically as a jazz institution. Today, people enjoy concerts in the 240-seat performance space. 738 S. Broad St., 215-893-9912, clefclubofjazz.org.

New Freedom Theatre
As one of the nation’s most honored Black professional theater companies, New Freedom Theatre has staged productions from celebrated African-American playwrights such as James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, Charles Fuller, Ntozake Shange, August Wilson and Leroi Jones. Its alumni include Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men. 1346 N. Broad St., 888-802-8998, freedomtheatre.org.

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