A historical marker on the Delaware River waterfront stands as testament to Philadelphia’s history in the slave trade, dating back to 1639, when Dutch and Swedish interests first brought enslaved Africans to Philadelphia.
It’s easy to miss it. “You can’t see it from the street,” said Denise Valentine, a storyteller known as Story Mama who led a tour Saturday afternoon of local sites associated with enslavement and freedom.
The waterfront historical marker lies behind the Independence Seaport Museum, facing perpendicular to the water and sitting next to the tent where people buy ferry tickets in the summer. “Most people just walk by and don’t even notice it,” Valentine said.
As leader of the Philadelphia Middle Passage Ceremony and Port Marker Project, Valentine helped Philadelphia earn designation as a UNESCO “Site of Memory” from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — denoting ports that engaged in the slave trade. She also works as an educator at the Museum of the American Revolution.
Saturday’s “commemorative walk and talk” attracted two dozen participants, who were black and white, young and old. It was part of a large effort underway nationally to observe the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the American colonies’ first African captives, in Virginia in 1619. Saturday was also the anniversary of the 1807 law that would end the international slave trade in America, signed on March 2.
Tarik Moore, an accountant from Holland, Bucks County, attended the tour with his three children, ages 14, 8, and 5. He looks for hiking and other outdoor activities for his children through the Outdoor Afro network, and thought visiting local sites involved in the slave trade was important.
“It’s a part of our history in America," Moore said, and he wants his children “to learn how we got here and that we had a culture before we got here.”
The walk started at Front and Market Streets, where the London Coffee House stood in colonial days and where Africans were bought and sold at an auction block.
Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and also of the essay “African Slavery in America,” had once stayed in an upstairs apartment above the coffee house. He looked out his window and saw Africans being sold on the auction block and was enraged, said Faye Anderson, a community historian who also spoke during the tour. Paine’s 1775 essay on slavery helped to prompt the founding of the first anti-slavery society in America.
Saturday’s tour group next walked to the site of Benjamin Franklin’s first printing press, near Front and Market Streets. Franklin was a slaveholder who went on to become a staunch abolitionist. In his business, Valentine told the tour group, he had printed advertisements for slave owners seeking the return of people who had fled captivity.
From there, the group walked to what is left of the Riverwalk sculpture on Columbus Boulevard near Market. Some people assumed the heads in the ship represent enslaved Africans, but Valentine said the artist, Andrew Leicester, never made that intention known. “I hope it does not represent the Trans-Atlantic slave trade,” she added. And then, it was on to the waterfront historical marker behind the Independence Seaport Museum.
Leaving the riverfront, the crowd walked to the Merchant Exchange Building, the round building near Third and Walnut Streets, across from the Ritz Five. “That same walk we just made, from the Delaware River to here, at the Merchant Exchange, is the same route enslaved Africans walked, only they walked in chains,” Valentine said.
The group then walked toward Washington Square, once known as Congo Square, where on Sundays Africans in Philadelphia “could gather on their free day and exchange African foods, languages, and songs,” Valentine said. The square was also a potter’s field where many Africans were buried, as were soldiers from the Revolutionary War.
Before entering Washington Square, Valentine taught the tour group a song: “Trouble’s coming,” she sang out. “You bring the fire. I’ll bring the water.”
Throughout the tour, participants were encouraged to talk about what freedom means — and what it means to feel powerful.
Saturday’s event was cosponsored by the theatrical presentation Vessels, playing at the Annenberg Center on March 7-10, which imagines how seven women taken from Africa aboard slave ships managed to cope and communicate.
Two of the show’s producers, Rebecca Mwase and Ron Ragin, were part of the walk and discussion, sometimes sharing songs from the show.