Philadelphia PA - Come discover the rich African-American heroes in Philadelphia, where historic houses and museums recount their stories and celebrate their talents. Many game-changing artists, abolitionists, actors, academics and others have each left a mark here, enriching the experiences of generations that followed.
Here are some places where visitors can connect with African-American icons in the places where they lived, worked or made history: Just as U.S. history is African-American history, Philadelphia history is African-American history. The nation’s birthplace and first World Heritage City is home to the founding church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination (201-year-old Mother Bethel A.M.E.) and the country’s first major museum devoted to black American history (African American Museum in Philadelphia). Landmarks in Philadelphia’s Historic District, from the Liberty Bell to street-side Historical Markers, tell of the successes, struggles and contributions of African-Americans through the centuries. Beyond the original city, Philadelphia’s vibrant neighborhoods offer glimpses into the pasts of African-American whose impacts live on today (Marian Anderson Residence, Paul Robeson House).
These Philadelphia museums, landmarks, churches and other sites are rich in African-American history.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia, founded in 1976, is the first institution built by a major U.S. city to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage and culture of African-Americans. Now celebrating its 40th year, the museum takes a fresh, bold look at the roles of African-Americans in the founding of the nation through the core exhibit Audacious Freedom. Other exhibitions and programs reveal the history, stories and cultures of those of African descent throughout the African diaspora. 701 Arch Street, (215) 574-0380, aampmuseum.org
At Independence Seaport Museum, Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River uses the city’s eastern river to uncover the African experience in Philadelphia, including enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow and Civil Rights. Guest curated by Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, a University of Pennsylvania professor, the exhibit tells a 300-year-old story that unfolds through artifacts from the museum’s own collection and compelling first-person accounts. Penn’s Landing, 211 S. Columbus Boulevard, (215) 413-8655, phillyseaport.org
The National Constitution Center houses an extremely rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The order that declared enslaved persons in rebellious areas of the South free is permanently on display in the Civil War alcove, which examines the turning-point year of 1863. Through self-guided tours and interactive programs, the museum also illustrates the contributions of notable African-Americans; delves into pivotal Supreme Court cases such as Dred Scott v. Sanford and Brown v. Board of Education; and explores the amendments that established rights for all citizens. A more recent highlight: the original, signed copy of Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, delivered onsite during his 2008 presidential campaign. 525 Arch Street, (215) 409-6700, constitutioncenter.org
The National Liberty Museum presents the enduring story of liberty, both in history and today. The Heroes From Around the World gallery spotlights notable people from all walks of life and time periods who protected and advanced freedom—including well-known figures such as Nelson Mandela and lesser-known people like Gail Gibson, a New Orleans nurse whose bravery helped save lives during Hurricane Katrina. The Live Like A Hero gallery showcases teachers, students, police officers, firefighters and other ordinary citizens who use their voices and talents to advocate for positive change, and the gallery includes a special section on students’ ideas about freedom after watching the film Selma. 321 Chestnut Street, (215) 925-2800, libertymuseum.org
Historic Sites & Attractions:
- Throughout Philadelphia—and the entire state, in fact—Historical Markers capture the stories of people, places and events that shaped our country. The blue signs act as mini-history lessons, including: First Protest Against Slavery (5109 Germantown Avenue), where a group of German Quakers wrote a protest against slavery in 1688; Free African Society (6th & Lombard Streets), an organization that fostered identity, leadership and unity among black people; James Forten (336 Lombard Street), a wealthy sailmaker who employed multi-racial craftsmen and championed reform causes; Octavius V. Catto (812 South Street), an African-American educator, Union army major and political organizer who was assassinated in 1871 while urging African-Americans to vote; Pennsylvania Abolition Society (Front Street between Walnut & Chestnut Streets), the first American abolition society; Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (5th & Arch Streets), organized by Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott; W. E. B. Du Bois (6th & Rodman Streets), an activist, author and co-founder of the NAACP; and William Still (244 S. 12th Street), an Underground Railroad agent. pahistoricalmarkers.com
- The Johnson House Historic Site, part of the Colonial Germantown Historic District, attained National Historic Landmark recognition for its role in the Underground Railroad. Tours offer visitors an opportunity to learn about the injustices of slavery and the people who risked their lives for others’ freedom. 6306 Germantown Avenue, (215) 438-1768, johnsonhouse.org
- Inside the Liberty Bell Center, visitors uncover the connection between the Liberty Bell and African-American history. Videos and interactive displays explain how the abolitionist movement adopted the icon of freedom based on the inscribed quote from Leviticus—“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”—as a symbol of its anti-slavery activities. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Liberty Bell traveled around the country to expositions to help heal the divisions of the Civil War. It reminded Americans of earlier days when they worked together for independence. 5th & Market Streets, (215) 965-2305, nps.gov/inde
- An understated façade houses the three-story home of opera singer, humanitarian and civil rights icon Marian Anderson. The Marian Anderson Residence Museum, listed National Register of Historic Places, reveals the life and work of the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. People can tour the house every day except Sunday. 762 S. Martin Street, (215) 779-4219, marianandersonhistoricalsociety.weebly.com
- Located in West Philadelphia, the Paul Robeson House served as the residence for the esteemed human rights activist, scholar, attorney, actor, football player and singer during the last decade of his life. Tours give visitors a chance to hear songs he recorded, learn about Robeson’s politics and discover his life of accomplishments—including his family’s 18th-century roots in Philadelphia. 4951 Walnut Street, (215) 747-4675, paulrobesonhouse.org
- At The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, visitors see structural fragments of the home where Presidents Washington and Adams lived during their terms and where the first president kept nine enslaved Africans. The open-air Independence National Historical Park site, located just steps from the Liberty Bell Center, invites people to learn about the events that transpired through illustrated glass panels and video re-enactments, and then partake in silent reflection. 6th & Market Streets, (215) 965-2305, nps.gov/inde
- People of all ages can perch on free Once Upon A Nation’s Storytelling Benches at 13 locations around Philadelphia’s Historic District. Professional storytellers regale their audiences with tales of the well-known and not-so-well-known people who shaped America’s history. Benches are open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Maps of the bench locations are available at the Independence Visitor Center. 6th & Market Streets, (215) 629-4026, historicphiladelphia.org
- With Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross and George Washington among its worshippers, Christ Church made history by ordaining Absalom Jones as the country’s first African-American priest (Episcopalian), baptizing 25% of the free and enslaved African-Americans in Philadelphia over a 20-year period and helping to establish a school to educate slaves. Tours of the National Park Service-affiliated church, a National Historic Landmark, occur throughout the day. 20 N. American Street, (215) 922-1695, christchurchphila.org
- Founded by Bishop Richard Allen with the first church building dedicated in 1794, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church sits on the oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African-Americans, and is the “Mother” church of the nation’s first black denomination. Today, Mother Bethel comprises three institutions under one roof: church, museum and archive. The congregation worships weekly. The museum houses the tomb of Bishop Richard Allen and artifacts dating back to the 1600s. Reservations encouraged for the daily museum tour. 419 S. 6th Street, (215) 925-0616, motherbethel.org
- Prior to the establishment of local African-American churches, St. George’s United Methodist Church welcomed black worshippers and licensed Richard Allen and Absalom Jones as the first African-American Methodist lay preachers. A dispute over segregated seating policies led to a walkout and the creation of African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. St. George’s continues to work on amends for previous racial injustices. Portraits, items of worship, manuscripts and artifacts from the church’s early years are on display in the original building, classroom and museum, open Tuesday through Friday, with Saturday tours by appointment and Sunday services. 235 N. 4th Street, (215) 925-7788, historicstgeorges.org
Art & Theater:
- Mural Arts Philadelphia has an African American Iconic Images Collection Trolley Tour in its repertoire, available for private bookings. During the two-hour experience, visitors discover the people and stories depicted on the larger-than-life artworks that adorn the city’s buildings and walls. (215) 925-3633, muralarts.org
- The Clef Club formed in 1966 through the efforts of Philadelphia’s African-American musicians union, Union Local No. 274 of the American Federation of Musicians. With notable members including John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, the social club played a significant role in the advancement of jazz in Philadelphia and the world. In 1978, it expanded its mission to include jazz performance, instruction and preservation, becoming the nation’s first facility constructed specifically as a jazz institution. Today, people enjoy concerts in the 240-seat performance space. 738 S. Broad Street, (215) 893-9912, clefclubofjazz.org
- As one of the nation’s most honored black professional theater companies, New Freedom Theatre has staged productions from celebrated African-American playwrights such as James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, Charles Fuller, Ntozake Shange, August Wilson and Leroi Jones. Its alumni include Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men. 1346 N. Broad Street, (888) 802-8998, freedomtheatre.org
- Built in 1919, the Royal Theater served the city’s African-American community by bringing performers such as Cab Calloway, Pearl Baily and Billie Holiday to Philadelphia. Listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, it also screened double features and films starring African-American actors, including Philadelphia’s Paul Robeson. Though it closed in 1970 and is currently slated to be developed into residences, its façade—painted with a vibrant mural showcasing performers Fats Waller and Bessie Smith—celebrates its heyday. 1524 South Street
- In 1927, African-American Pennsylvania legislator Samuel Beecher Hart proposed a memorial that became All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors. Sculptor J. Otto Schweizer depicted African-American officers and enlisted men surrounded by American eagles and the allegorical figure of Justice, clutching symbols of Honor and Reward. Initially installed in Fairmount Park, it later found its home near Logan Circle on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. 20th Street & Benjamin Franklin Parkway
- Sculptor Stephen Layne spent eight months creating the clay model for the Smokin’ Joe Frazier memorial statue. He wanted to perfectly capture the moment when the Philly native dropped Muhammed Ali with a left hook in 15th round of “The Fight of the Century.” The 11-foot-tall, 1,800-pound bronze sculpture stands in the heart of South Philadelphia’s sports area outside XFINITY Live! 1100 Pattison Avenue
African-American Facts About Philadelphia:
- Julian Abele became the first African-American architect to design a major museum in the United States when he laid plans for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture, Abele also designed the Free Library of Philadelphia.
- Known as the “Black Capital of Anti-Slavery” in the 1800s, Philadelphia was a hub for groups such as the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society and the Pennsylvania Underground Railroad, whose president and leaders resided in the city.
- W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro serves as sociological survey of the African-Americans living in the city’s Seventh Ward. The mural Mapping Courage, painted on the firehouse at 601 South Street, memorializes Du Bois’ book, the Seventh Ward and the local Engine #11 fire station, which was founded in 1871 and served as the city’s unofficial African-American firehouse until the fire department desegregated in 1952.
- Established in 1884, The Philadelphia Tribune holds the distinction as the country’s oldest daily newspaper serving the African-American community. phillytrib.com
- With 13,000 titles and 1,000 graphics and illustrations, The Library Company of Philadelphia’s African Americana Collection contains one of the most comprehensive collections by and about African-Americans. Books, pamphlets, newspapers and periodicals ranging from the mid-16th to early 20th centuries provide in-depth documentation of African-American life in the country over the course of 400 years. 1314 Locust Street, (215) 546-3181, librarycompany.org
- Albert C. Barnes possessed foresight as one of the first people in America to consider African objects as art. The pieces he collected between 1922 and 1924 became a central theme in the collection at the Barnes Foundation, and he displayed the pieces along with works by Renoir and Cézanne. A man known for his belief in social justice through education, he was both interested and involved in the Harlem Renaissance. 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, (215) 278-7200, barnesfoundation.org