A new Phila. story: Escape from slavery


As the summer tourists flock to the city, Philadelphia officials yesterday announced a new project, Quest for Freedom, linking more than 20 sites that tell the tale of the Underground Railroad in the region - a venture to raise awareness about the African American experience and to boost tourism.

The program includes a variety of sites in and around Philadelphia that either were part of the Underground Railroad or house artifacts and documents that shed light on the slave experience in Pennsylvania. The stops include the African American Museum, Belmont Mansion and Mother Bethel AME Church. Special programs will be held at some of the 20 sites.

For example, one site, at the National Constitution Center, exhibits for the first time in history the first written protest against slavery. This document, written in 1688 by the Germantown Friends Monthly Meeting, will be on public display only until Sept. 3, according to museum staff.

Announced yesterday on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, Quest for Freedom also is an initiative that the city hopes will expand its tourism base.

The city also announced that a task force with a 60-day deadline has been appointed to develop a plan to make the President's House at Sixth and Market Streets, where George Washington kept slaves, more accessible to the public viewing the excavation now in progress.

Mayor Street, who was among city officials at the National Constitution Center yesterday to announce the Quest for Freedom project said: "This is also a great source of economics for us. There are literally thousands - almost 60,000 people - in our city who are employed in the hospitality industry."

Although there are no official projections of how much money the program is expected to raise through increased tourism, the amount of money brought into the city from leisure tourists is considerable, according to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC).

Patricia Washington, vice president of grants and development for GPTMC, said statistics from 2005 show that 20 percent of 27.3 million annual visitors to the city were leisure tourists, who spent an aggregate of $16.4 million per day.

Nancy Sanders, an author of children's books, traveled to Philadelphia from California this week to visit the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church with her husband and two sons. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass once gave a speech from its pulpit.

"I was thinking yesterday that they really need to do this," Sanders said of the Quest for Freedom project.

Her husband, Jeff, added, "I think there's a lot of interest in this kind of thing, but it's just not a very well-known topic. Adding in some marketing is a great idea."

Washington said the GPTMC marketing campaign is not targeted at any specific audiences, but rather at people from all walks of life. However, she said the Stand Up for Freedom bus tours, which have run to a handful of sites for the past five years, have drawn a crowd that is 60 percent Caucasian and 15 percent African American.

Other states such as Ohio and Maryland have created similar African American heritage trails and Underground Railroad trails, but Philadelphia is one of the first U.S. cities to undertake such an extensive project.

Richard Rabinowitz, president of the American Historical Workshop, has traveled the country examining various sites associated with slavery. He is the curator of two historical exhibits in New York where he followed the controversial uncovering of an African burial ground in New York City as "an interested bystander."

Rabinowitz brought his expertise to Philadelphia, where he serves as historian and interpretive planner for the design team of the President's House.

The President's House - razed in the 19th century - had been the residence of George Washington and John Adams in the 1790s, when Philadelphia was the nation's interim capital city. Archeological digs have uncovered evidence that Washington had nine slaves living in the house; two of them, a man and a woman, escaped with the help of the free African American community in Pennsylvania. The site is a stop in the Quest for Freedom tour.

"Projects like this in New York and Philadelphia are so significant because the public generally thinks of slavery as an institution of the South in the cotton plantations. But there were slaves in Philadelphia and New York and it was essential to the economy of this part of the country. This is still not very well understood by the public," Rabinowitz said in a phone interview.

The findings at the President's House have been controversial, but officials and project coordinators hope that this new interest in these historical sites can increase tourism to Philadelphia.

Mayor Street announced yesterday that as a result of these findings at the President's House, a task force has been selected to determine how to convert the site into a commemorative installation for tourists to visit.

For more information on the Underground Railroad in the Philadelphia region, go to http://go.philly.com/underground

Watch video of city officials outlining the Quest for Freedom project at

Inquirer staff writer Katie Stuhldreher can be reached at 215-854-2771 or stuhldk@phillynews.com