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Philadelphia Honors Its Black Roots

A new mural honors W.E.B. Du Bois and his research on a part of Philadelphia that housed a fifth of the city's 40,000 blacks.
A new mural honors W.E.B. Du Bois and his research on a part of Philadelphia that housed a fifth of the city's 40,000 blacks. ((c) 2009 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program/Willis Humphrey)
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By JoAnn Greco
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 25, 2009; Page C02

On the side of a Philadelphia firehouse, an image of sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois hovers over a list of the classifications (from "violent and criminal" to "middle class and above") he used to describe "The Philadelphia Negro." The new mural celebrates the 110-year-old book of that title -- a door-to-door study of a largely African American neighborhood -- as well as, with an image of firefighters at work, an all-black fire company once housed near the current fire station.

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I recently sought out the mural after visiting "America I AM: The African American Imprint," a major exhibition at the National Constitution Center that attempts to address a question famously posed by Du Bois: "Would America have been America without her Negro people?"

Developed by radio and TV personality Tavis Smiley, the exhibit is sweeping and fast-paced, but after seeing it, all I could think about was . . . Sixth Street.

Along that strip, a host of relatively low-key, uniquely Philadelphian black history sites await.

Walk one block south, toward Independence Hall, and stop at the unprepossessing lot at Sixth and Market streets. Billed as the President's House Commemorative Site, the empty space sheds light on the story of nine slaves owned by George Washington when he lived as president in Philadelphia, the nation's capital in the 1790s.

During excavations a few years ago, the National Park Service discovered evidence that the father of our country rotated slaves between his Mount Vernon and Philadelphia homes in order to skirt Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act, which allowed slaves to seek emancipation after they'd resided in the state for more than six months.

Until a commemorative structure opens in summer 2010, signs on the property detail the story and explain the layout of the house, including the passages that kept the slaves hidden from outsiders.

Continuing south, glance at Independence Hall. On the second floor, new Park Service research suggests, runaway slaves were tried under the Fugitive Slave Act, then handed over to slave hunters hired to take them back south. Gradually, park historians say, a more complete picture of the promises and paradoxes regarding our nation's founding principles of liberty and equality is emerging.

On the next block is Washington Square. The square today is rather staid, a respite for dog walkers and picnickers. It's hard to believe that during the Colonial era it would fill with Africans who came together to party, to resurrect the traditional food and music they'd been forced to leave behind.

You're not far from the firehouse mural now and the neighborhood 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."

The history can be gleaned from the landmark's messy confluence of signs: two markers from the state of Pennsylvania, one placard from the city of Philadelphia and three historical plaques affixed to the building. Pieced together, they relay the story of the congregation, Mother Bethel AME.

It was 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 Episcopal church in the country, and, according to the church's official history, its land is the oldest parcel of real estate continuously owned by blacks in the United States. Its current building, a Romanesque Revival mass of stone blocks from 1889, is the congregation's fourth home.

As I signed the register there, I noticed that five others had visited that day. I followed Sharon, a retired schoolteacher, up the winding wooden staircase to the sanctuary and listened as she detailed the imagery behind the stained glass. Downstairs in a tiny museum, Allen is buried in a simple tomb graced by candles and flowers. Treasures such as the 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 the entire AME Church, with 2 million-plus members in more than 30 nations.

I emerged into the sunlight and found myself in the tattoo-and-piercing bustle of South Street. A nearby plaque marked the site of an 1842 race riot, and another identified the street on which Du Bois lived while trying to get to the heart of what he called "the Negro problem." Expensive exhibits tell only a part of the story of the African American imprint, I thought. The rest is all around us -- in the places we love, but also in the shadows of empty lots and, even, unnoticed plaques.


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