Free Day at the Independence Seaport Museum

One of the highlights from this year's Wawa Welcome America festivities was the free access to a variety of museums in our region, including the Independence Seaport Museum, located at 211 South Christopher Columbus Boulevard.

Also known as the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, Independence Seaport Museum is situated next to Penn’s Landing Historic Walk and was founded in 1961 to document maritime history and culture alongside the Delaware River. The museum is also home to two National Historic Landmarks: the USS Olympia and the USS Becuna. 

Recognized as the only surviving warship from her era, the USS Olympia (C-6) is a steel ship that played a pivotal role in the U.S. victory at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. The Olympia served in World War I and was eventually decommissioned in 1922. In 1996, the Olympia became part of Independence Seaport Museum, where, to this day, visitors can board and tour the ship. 

The USS Becuna (SS-319) was launched in 1944 as a World War II submarine and was used throughout the Cold War before it was decommissioned in 1969. Like the Olympia, the Becuna joined Independence Seaport Museum in 1996 and provides visitors with a chance to board and explore the remaining artifacts. 

“Tides to Freedom”

One of the first exhibits visitors see when they enter the museum’s main building is “Tides to Freedom,” which thematically showcases the history of African presence on the Delaware River. Through galleries of first-hand notes and artifacts, the exhibit describes the history of enslavement from the 1500s to 1800s, especially focusing on how the abolitionist movement grew during the 1770s.

Expanding on the growth of abolition, the exhibit then documents emancipation movements throughout the 1800s, emphasizing the Delaware River’s place within the eruption of the Civil War. The gallery specifically highlights a race riot that occurred at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hall on May 17, 1838. During this riot, anti-abolitionist protestors burned down Pennsylvania Hall and firefighters were not able to save the building. 

From here, the exhibit transitions into describing how African Americans were disenfranchised during the Jim Crow era. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896 legitimized Jim Crow laws because the Court ruled that the “separate but equal” legal doctrine did not violate the U.S. Constitution. This lasted for decades. Even when World War I began, African Americans were segregated in the armed forces and continued to be throughout World War II until President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in defense industries and government employment. 

Following this, the exhibit describes the rise of the Civil Rights movement, where African Americans fought against institutionalized oppression to finally begin reversing the legal barriers segregating American society. New legislation and judicial review amplified the voices of Civil Rights leaders. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court Case, Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954 ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, effectively overturning the judicial precedent established decades earlier by Plessy v. Ferguson. In addition to this, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally ended segregation in public places as well as banned employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin.  

Towards the end of the exhibit, Philadelphia's role during the Civil Rights movement was spotlighted, including Girard College in Philadelphia, which admitted its first four African-American male students on September 11, 1968, and the election of Philadelphia's first-ever elected African-American mayor, Wilson Goode, who served from 1984 to 1992. 

More to “Sea”

The museum also offers a variety of model ships for visitors to explore. One of the most attention-grabbing displays was the model of the USS Indianapolis, which was commissioned in 1932 at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. It was designed in accordance with the disarmament treaties of World War I, which required ships in this class to have a displacement of 10,000 tons.

The USS Indianapolis carried parts of the atomic bomb to the U.S. Army Air Force Base on the island of Tinian. This was a top-secret trip to deliver parts of Little Boy, which was the first nuclear weapon ever used in warfare. After leaving the island, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by Japanese submarine I-58. Only 316 of the 1,200 crew survived the wreckage and, to this day, it’s recognized as the worst disaster in US naval history.

In addition to the exhibits, the museum offers a wide variety of programs, including the Seaport Summer Camp. Perfect for children ages 6-12, the camp is jam-packed with activities and opportunities to explore the water. Independence Seaport Museum also hosts the Kayak Club, which is open to anyone interested kayaking and runs from May to September.

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Article written by Daniel Ortiz on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association