UNESCO Sites of Memory: A New Designation for Philadelphia

In 2019, the world commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first historically documented arrival of African captives to Virginia in 1619, at a time when it was still a British colony. Throughout the 350 years of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, enslaved Africans arrived at more than 175 distinct ports of entry (known as Middle Passage ports) throughout Europe and the Americas.

On this solemn and important milestone, the UNESCO Slave Route Project has given Philadelphia the designation of a “Site of Memory” for its involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as a documented port of entry on the Delaware River. Philadelphia is one of thirty-one U.S. Middle Passage Arrival Sites to receive this designation. 

According to the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, “Sites of Memory,” or “Sites of Conscience,” are “historic sites, museums and memory initiatives that activate the power of places of memory to engage the public with a deeper understanding of the past and inspire action to shape a just future.”

UNESCO’s project, "The Slave Route: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage," seeks to “break the silence” around the historical process of the slave trade and foster dialogue, peace, and reconciliation processes. Since its launch in 1994, this initiative has been supporting research in disregarded areas, preserving both written and intangible pieces of heritage, creating appropriate methods of teaching this history, and identifying, preserving, and promoting sites of memory that relate to the slave trade.

“The designation is important, especially with this year marking the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first Africans in British North America, and Philadelphia should take advantage of this commemorative year to acknowledge its role in the slave trade,” says Denise Valentine, founder of the Philadelphia Middle Passage Ceremony & Port Marker Project (PhillyMPC), which is the Philadelphia chapter of the wider MPCPMP umbrella organization of Middle Passage sites. Denise has been instrumental in spearheading these efforts on behalf of Philadelphia, working on research compilation and letters of support for UNESCO’s Sites of Memory designation.

Founded in 2013, PhillyMPC sought to rally support for an official State of Pennsylvania historical marker indicating involvement in the slave trade. Charles Blockson, Curator Emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, submitted the formal application along with letters of community support.

In 2016, the goal was achieved with the dedication of the marker, “The Pennsylvania Slave Trade,” at Penn’s Landing near the Independence Seaport Museum. To this day, PhillyMPC organizes events for ancestral remembrance at Penn’s Landing every August 5th to commemorate and honor nearly two million African lives lost along the Middle Passage.

What does this designation mean for the city of Philadelphia? For starters, it acts as a catalyst for dialogue, presenting Philadelphians with a chance to think critically about their understanding of the past and address this painful history. This designation is an opportunity to place Philadelphia within the historical context of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which played a significant part in shaping both this city and our nation. As Denise Valentine states, “This is an opportunity for Philadelphia to acknowledge its own role in the slave trade, to open up dialogue about it, and to face this important part of our history that has been either neglected or whitewashed. It’s an opportunity to recognize the insidiousness of the slave trade and the way in which it penetrated every area of commerce and affected other institutions.”

The Site of Memory designation works to ensure that historical trauma is not silenced and that its voice resonates today in our understanding and acknowledgement of this tragic aspect of our region’s history. In representing a painful but vital part of Philadelphia’s heritage, the Site of Memory designation forms a parallel to Philadelphia’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Independence Hall, which traditionally serves as a symbol of freedom for our city.

In the near future, PhillyMPC hopes to build on the UNESCO designation by incorporating it into events coming up in the spring of 2019. The organization also plans to continue research compilation and community educational efforts with regard to the Transatlantic Slave Trade in general, and the Philadelphia connection specifically. In terms of regional impact, PhillyMPC seeks to collaborate with other cultural or historical entities of the Delaware Valley in conversations centered around the institution of slavery as it relates to the region. At the international level, it supports larger efforts of the International Coalition to Commemorate African Ancestors of the Middle Passage (ICCAAMP) along with the UNESCO Slave Route Project.  

As Denise Valentine so eloquently states, “The Delaware River in Philadelphia flows through the African American past and present. It represents the pain of the Great MAAFA; our connection to Ancestral homelands; the triumphant survival of the descendants of those Africans; and our call for healing and hope for future generations.”At the end of the day, by acknowledging this painful past with the future in mind, we can build not just a better city, but also a better world, with truth, peace, reconciliation, and justice for all."




Article written by Cristina Serban on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association

Image credits -

UNESCO Logo: permitted for use in material relating to the Site of Memory designation

Photos: PhillyMPC/blog post by Denise Valentine