Resources for Learning about Philadelphia’s Connections with African American Heritage

Seeing Philadelphia as a “well-heritaged city” is most noticeable in recognizing the rich community, cultural, and global kinship of the African American presence here, both past and present.  We all know our city’s unique place in our nation’s founding and history, and use it as a gateway to discover an even broader understanding of our lives as Philadelphians and Americans.

The Annunciation  Henry Ossawa Tanner, American (1859-1937)

 

An excellent place to start is one of the permanent exhibits at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP),Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876.”  This exhibit, which can supplement teaching about African American history across curricular settings, gives us an imaginative foundation on which to explore many different buildings, institutions, and neighborhoods across Philadelphia.  Some of these sites include the Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery, the Johnson House, the statue of Octavius Cattoon City Hall’s south side, President George Washington’s house at 5th and Market, various walking tours such as the one covering the city’s Seventh Ward (Walking Tour), and even Uncle Bobbies Coffee and Booksin Germantown. 

 


If we ask for more historical details, we are rewarded everywhere we look.  Just to take one example, James Forten (Philadelphia), a wealthy international merchant, ship and property owner in the early 19th century, was a leading member of the city’s African American community.  When the War of 1812 drew closer to Philadelphia after the British burned the White House in Washington, D.C., Forten gathered over 1,000 free African American men to build a fortification near Gray’s Ferry on the Schuylkill River to help defend the city from anticipated British attack.  The actual status of free African Americans at this time was unclear.  They certainly were not citizens and so not required to give any military aid, but they volunteered anyway, answering Forten’s call to show their patriotism rather than collaborating with the British forces.  By 1810, there were perhaps 10,000 African Americans, both free and enslaved, in the city of Philadelphia, and both the city and state governments supported restrictions on African Americans’ activities and movements.  

 

 

We can energize our understanding of the richness of African American cultural strength in Philadelphia if we use sources we can see and experience in wider ways.  Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting, pictured above, is available to view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  We can visit his homesite at 2908 West Diamond Street, the National Marian Anderson Museum - Home, and the John Coltrane House, all National Historic Landmarks, in order to reach further into the historical depth of African American talent across time and the arts in Philadelphia.  We can see Historic Fair Hill Cemeteryand Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, in order to appreciate the variety of faith traditions associated with African Americans in our city.  History Making Productionshas produced numerous films, along with related classroom materials, on topics related to African American history in Philadelphia, and The 13th Amendmentis one among many educational videos available at theNational Constitution Center.  Several murals, such as the one at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center, depict major chapters in our shared civil rights history.  The Woodmere Museumshowcased We Speak: Black Artists in Philadelphia, 1920s-1970sin 2015.  Mighty Writershas worked since 2009 to enable young Philadelphians to create powerful new narratives about their own lives across our city’s communities and neighborhoods.

Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream by Willis Nomo Humphrey. Photo by Steve Weinik.

 

African American heritage in Philadelphia has dynamic international connections that reach back to the colonial era and forward to today.  The New York Times’ The 1619 Projectenabled all of us to gain a fresh perspective on the heritage of slavery in the 400th anniversary year.  Yet these materials cannot limit our connections between Philadelphia and the African continent.  Our Philly’s Little Africacontains restaurants, shops, and ongoing relationships with many African countries through the African Cultural Alliance of North America.  The Odunde Festival, although cancelled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been celebrated on South Street since 1975 in June each year.  Philadelphia Juneteenth Parade & Festival: Homelinks our city back to emancipation and the end of slavery throughout the United States.  As we celebrate Philadelphia’s status as a World Heritage City and our World Heritage Site of Independence Hall, we can also see kinship with fellow World Heritage Cities of Marrakesh (Morocco), Mombasa (Kenya), andTimbuktu (Mali), and also World Heritage Sites such as Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions.  The House of Umoja, established in West Philadelphia in 1970, replicates the Old Towns of Djennéin Mali and “has become an instrumental force around the world in promoting positive development for youth.”  More broadly, the University of Pennsylvania’s Africa Centeroffers languages, programming, travel, and lecture opportunities, among other offerings, all focused on the continent’s diverse history, geography, and cultures.

 

Did you know…

at the site of President George Washington’s house at 5th and Market Streets, you can watch video recordings of enslaved persons who worked at the house...

that more than 150,000 volunteers participated in Martin Luther King, Jr. Day activities in Philadelphia in 2019...

in 1869, Philadelphians marched to mark our country’s ratification of the Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment which enabled African American men to vote...

 

Learn more about Philadelphia’s Connections with African American Heritage