Explore Phila.'s role in African American history
Philadelphia's role in the birth of the nation is well-trod territory. Sadly, its place in African American history is not.
That chapter is significant: By 1790, Philadelphia was home to about 2,000 free blacks. Many were former slaves who had bought their freedom after the war or been released by slaveholders; some were fugitives.
Gary Steuer, former chief cultural officer for the city, lamented in an Inquirer article last year that Philadelphia had not taken better advantage of its "enormous claim to African American history."
I completely agree.
Granted, there are tours that cover historic African American sites, typically in the Center City area. These include the African American History Tour run by American Trolley Tours, and Philadelphia Historic African American Tours L.L.C., both by appointment. And, of course, there's the African American Museum on Arch Street.
Yet, sites of profound importance in African American history exist in almost every part of Philadelphia. The challenge is figuring out what and where they are. It would be appropriate for the city to compile a comprehensive African American History Trail highlighting them. A listing of addresses grouped by area would be a good start.
Because that's not available - yet - I have put together a limited list of places to visit to learn American stories. I omitted more modern-day locations, such as the Blue Horizon, Freedom Theater, Uptown Theater, and the Philadelphia Tribune, the country's oldest continuously published African American newspaper.
The President's House,
Sixth and Market Sts. From 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia was the capital of the new republic. So start the tour with the President's House , which stands in the footprint of the first "White House." Homage is paid to nine slaves who served there, owned by President George Washington. The multimedia presentations are riveting.
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Sixth and Lombard Sts. A few blocks away is the historic church founded in 1794 by the Right Rev. Richard Allen, who is entombed inside. Mother Bethel, which still has regular services, occupies the nation's oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African Americans. The AME Church is the nation's oldest black Christian denomination.
Christian Street YMCA,
1724 Christian St. Head to South Philadelphia to this Y, a modern building with an illustrious past. It was founded in the 19th century by a group of black Philadelphians, among them William Still, widely considered the father of the Underground Railroad. (He helped 649 slaves to freedom.) The founding meeting of the Y was at Still's house on June 26, 1889, with Christopher Perry Jr., founder of the Philadelphia Tribune, and two AME bishops among those in attendance.
By 1914, a four-story building was dedicated to the spiritual, mental, and physical health of "Negro men and boys." Among the men who've spent countless hours there: NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain.
Marian Anderson Historical Residence and Museum, 762 S. Marian Anderson Way. In the 1920s, contralto Marian Anderson bought a house across from Union Baptist Church, where she sang as a child. In 1955, Anderson became the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera, but she made her mark on U.S. history in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her permission to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington. Angered by the racist refusal, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to perform at the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Anderson sang before a crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience of countless others.
The Marian Anderson Historical Residence and Museum houses memorabilia, books, photos, paintings, and films. She owned the property for 69 years, and it's as she left it.
Paul Robeson House,
4951 Walnut St. The West Philadelphia house actually was the home of the singer/scholar's sister, but he lived the last 10 years of his life there. Born in Princeton in 1898, Robeson was a standout scholar-athelete at Rutgers University; he earned 15 letters in four varsity sports, was elected Phi Beta Kappa, and became his class valedictorian. He was a lawyer in 1923, but quit over racism at his firm.
He turned to the stage, starring in London in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and in Showboat in 1928. He brought the house down with "Ol' Man River," which became his signature. Robeson used his fame to speak out against racism and injustice the world over. His outspokenness, though, earned him a spot on the McCarthy-era blacklist in 1950. He returned to work eight years later, but the damage was done. He died in 1977.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper House, 1006 Bainbridge St. As you travel the city, you pass many stops along the Underground Railroad. One who opened her home to runaway slaves was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, born a free black woman in Baltimore. Abolitionist, suffragist, and writer, she was called the mother of African American journalism. Her home is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two other significant Underground Railroad sites are Belmont Mansion in Fairmount Park and Johnson House in Germantown. Both are open for tours.
Institute for Colored Youth, 915 Bainbridge St. Near the Harper house is the institute that became Cheyney University. Founded in 1837 to provide a classical education to young African Americans in Philadelphia, it was moved in 1907 to George Cheyney's farm in Delaware County and its name changed to Cheyney University. (That makes Cheyney the oldest African American institution of higher education.)
Henry O. Tanner House, 2908 W. Diamond St. Another stop on the National Register is the boyhood home of famed artist Henry O. Tanner. He was a student of Thomas Eakins here, but, suffering under the burden of racism, he moved to Paris in 1891, where he found acceptance. His painting Daniel in the Lions' Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon, the great art event. Years after his death, Tanner was still making history. His Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (c. 1885 oil on canvas) hangs in the Green Room at the White House. Acquired under the Clinton administration in 1996, it was the first work by an African American artist to be bought for the White House collection.