Philadelphia: On Sixth Street, a Walk Through African-American History

On the side of a Philadelphia firehouse, an image of sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois hovers benignly over a fluttering list of his classifications (from “violent and criminal” to “middle class and above”) of what he termed “The Philadelphia Negro.” The new mural celebrates not only the 110-year-old book of that title — a door-to-door study of a largely African-American neighborhood — but an all-black fire company that was once housed near the current fire station.

Throughout the city that produced Bill Cosby, Patti Labelle, and Will Smith, the African American imprint remains strong and evident. Along a short stretch of Sixth Street, though, a host of relatively low-key, uniquely Philadelphian, black history sites await. The narrative of this short walk isn’t museum-linear, and it contains no whiz-bang “environments.” But in the way it’s just there, interwoven into the streets of Philadelphia, it’s all the more poignant.

Start just north of Independence Hall. Before you reach a certain cracked bell — once adopted by abolitionists as their symbol — stop at the unprepossessing lot on the corner of Sixth and Market streets. Billed as the President’s House Commemorative Site, this (for now) empty space has recently unveiled a remarkable story of nine Africans who were enslaved to President George Washington when he lived in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital.

During excavations a few years ago, the Park Service discovered evidence confirming that the father of our country rotated slaves between Mount Vernon and his new home. Until a permanent exhibition opens later this summer, several boards detail the story and explain the layout of the home, including the passages through which slaves moved so as to stay hidden from outsiders.

Continuing south, glance at Independence Hall, just to your east. Here on the second floor, new Park Service research suggests, runaway slaves were tried as part of the Fugitive Slave Act, and then handed over to slave hunters who had been hired to bring them back South.

On the next block is Washington Square, also administered by the National Park Service. A rather staid respite for dogwalkers and picnickers today, it’s hard to believe that during the Colonial-era it was referred to as “Congo Square,” and filled with Africans who came together to resurrect the traditional food and music they’d been forced to leave behind.

photo by JoAnn Greco
photo by JoAnn Greco

You’re not far from the mural now, and the neighborhood that Du Bois grew to know so intimately. At the time he conducted his research in the late 1880s, the area was home to a fifth of the city’s population of 40,000 blacks. Central to that presence, Du Bois wrote, was “Bethel Church. . . so phenomenal that it belongs to the history of the nation rather than to any one city.”

Founded in 1787 as the Free African Society, after an ex-slave Richard Allen and other free blacks grew disgusted with another church’s segregated worship, it evolved into the first African-American Methodist church in the states.  Its land is the oldest parcel of real estate continuously owned by blacks in the U.S.

Downstairs in a tiny museum, Allen is buried in a simple subway-tiled tomb, graced by candles and flowers. Galleries, filled with treasures like the wooden pews from its earlier churches — each of which served as stops on the Underground Railroad — explore the development of this now 700-member congregation, as well as A.M.E., which today includes about 2 million members in more than 30 nations.

Outside, a nearby plaque marks the site of an 1842 race riot, and still another the street on which Du Bois lived while trying to get to the heart of what he called “the Negro problem.” It’s just another part of the story of the African-American imprint. The rest is all around us — in the places we love, like our parks and our churches, but also in the shadows of empty lots and, even, unnoticed plaques.

One good book: The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899)

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