Where you’ll meet a “Who’s Who” of remarkable Americans many of us know little about

Growing up in Delaware County, I heard family horror stories about the discrimination Irish Catholics faced when they landed here. And about ads that said: “No Irish need apply.”

But not until I visited the African American Museum in Philadelphia did I really understand the extraordinary discrimination blacks faced in our city. It was pervasive and relentless.

What I learned:

  • Free blacks were kidnapped off the street in Philadelphia and sent south to become slaves (something no Irish immigrant I know of had to face). One was even snatched from the very street I live on –  in a story reminiscent of the movie 12 Years a Slave.
  • Blacks were not permitted to ride streetcars in Philadelphia. Even African Americans soldiers fighting for the North in the Civil War were denied entry.
  • Black solders in that war were paid less than white ones.
  • As late as 1858, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad said blacks could only travel “with a responsible white person.”
  • Fire companies were entirely white, and would rarely protect African American properties from fires set by their own members.

After learning all this at the African American Museum … and that Frederick Douglass – an invited guest to the Centennial Exposition – was turned away and only seated because of the intervention of others … I did more researching.

The comments below by Douglass, a renowned orator, abolitionist and writer, reveal a great deal about the way African Americans were treated in our city:

“There is not perhaps anywhere to be found a city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia …. Colored persons, no matter how well dressed or how well behaved, ladies or gentlemen, rich or poor, are not even permitted to ride on any of the many railways through the Christian city. Halls are rented with the express understanding that no person of color shall be allowed to enter, either to attend a concert or listen to a lecture. The whole aspect of city usage at this point is mean, contemptible and barbarous ….”


Nesaika is a work by sculpture John Rhoden. Photo by Jim Murphy.
Nesaika is a work by sculpture John Rhoden. Photo by Jim Murphy.

Pretty strong stuff from the book Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. And pretty nasty ways to hamper people going about their daily lives.

Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776 – 1876, the main exhibit on the first floor, covers these and many other key events in the lives of black Philadelphians.

Funded by PECO, this interactive audio/visual display, using photos, timelines, documents and more, looks at people, white and black, who made a difference in the city.

You’ll learn how George Washington rotated his slaves out of Pennsylvania before they were here six months – to avoid their becoming free under the Gradual Abolition Law. How his slave Oney Judge escaped from the President’s House in Philadelphia to New Hampshire, and how a desperate Washington tried to get her back.

At Philadelphia Conversations on floor 2, you’ll interact with African-American trailblazers on 10 video screens. They include clergymen and abolitionists Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, educator, athlete and civil rights leader Octavius Catto and others. You can click on four pre-selected questions at each display to get a video reply. Children’s Corner is also on this floor.


Name: The African American Museum in Philadelphia
Address: 701 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA 19106
Year Opened: 1976
Claim to Fame: Is the first institution funded and built by a major municipality to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage of African Americans.
Affiliation: Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program
Hours: Thurs. – Sat., 10 a.m. to 5p.m; Sun., noon to 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $14; Senior Citizens, $10. Students w/ID and Youths (4-12 yrs.) $10; AAMP Members, free.
Phone: (215) 574-0380
Website: www.aampmuseum.org
Exhibits: Permanent displays are on floors 1 and 2, temporary ones on 3 and 4.
Public Art: 13 Whispering Bells by Reginald Beauchamp represents the original 13 colonies. The bells, without clappers or hammers, are rung by the wind. Nesaika, by John Rhoden, merges aspects of African and American culture into one sculpture.

This article appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of the Society Hill Reporter, and has been reprinted with permission.