Philadelphia: Still “First in Freedom”


Liberty Bell(Now is a good time to visit the city of brotherly love’s Academy of Natural Sciences, where the George Washington Carver Exhibit is on display from Nov. 14 through Feb. 28. Take the whole family to honor and learn about this great Black scientist.)

Most people know about the Liberty Bell, the most popular tourist attraction in Philadelphia. But did you know that the bell in this “city of brotherly love” was once a symbol of the abolition of slavery? This connection between the Liberty Bell and African-American history is revealed at the Liberty Bell Center through exhibitions, videos and interactive displays.

Informational panels portraying enslaved Africans who worked for George Washington during his tenure as president of the United States are located at the main entrance to the Center. Visitors heading to the Liberty Bell will walk upon the actual site of the quarters that housed slaves who served the President’s House. A President’s House Commemorative Site, slated to open in 2010 a few steps away from the Liberty Bell, will honor enslaved Africans who lived in the first Executive Mansion.

At the nearby National Constitution Center, where a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln is housed, you can learn about important Supreme Court decisions effecting African-Americans. Here you can trace the evolution of the U.S. Constitution through exhibitions that explore amendments banning slavery and authorizing voting rights. Be sure to visit the nearby Johnson House Historic Site, the former home of abolitionists Samuel and Jeanett Johnson, whose attic and basement here once served as hiding places for runaway slaves using the Underground Railroad and a meeting place for abolitionist activists like Harriet Tubman and William Still, author of The Underground Railroad.

The place where American democracy first began, Philadelphia claims many of America’s firsts, including the first hospital, first capital and first art museum, giving rise to the city’s motto, “first in freedom.” With the largest free Black population before the Civil War, Philadelphia was also the first city to take steps to abolish slavery. This is where free African-Americans first joined forces with Quakers, abolitionists and sympathetic whites to lead the world in anti-slavery activities. It is where the legendary Henry “Box” Brown landed as a runaway slave and emerged a free man after a grueling 37-hour journey from the South, packed in a wooden box.

Philadelphia is also home to several must-visit museums and artistic centers significant to Black history. The African American Museum Philadelphia (AAMP), one of the oldest and finest Black museums in the country, is the first institution built by a major U.S. city to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage and culture of African-Americans. Philly also houses the Freedom Theatre, the oldest Black theatrical institution in Pennsylvania; Bushfire Theater, the nation’s first such venue honoring African-Americans of stage, screen and television; and the National Liberty Museum, with its displays of glass sculptures symbolizing accomplishments of notable Blacks. At the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art, which an African-American architect helped to design, you will find more than 500 works by 130 African-American artists.

Philadelphia is also first in the founding of a number of Black churches, including Mother Bethel AME Church, founded by Richard Allen in 1787 and the oldest piece of property continually owned by African-Americans. A small museum in the church’s basement houses the tomb of Allen and artifacts from the Underground Railroad.

The “city that loves you back” shows love for a number of notable Blacks with historic land markers. For example, at the Paul Robeson House, which is now a museum, visitors can view some of the sheet music, photographs and furnishings of the legendary singer, activist, athlete and actor. At The Marian Anderson Residence Museum, visitors can view memorabilia, rare photos and films about the late contralto’s life and career. A tour of Philly’s Black heritage trail would not be complete without visiting the Sound of Philadelphia, a museum honoring Kenny Gamble and Kenneth Huff, music producers who created the soul rhythms known as “the Philadelphia sound.”

The icing on the cake for any Black-heritage tour is a meal at a soul food restaurant. Two of the finest such places in Philly are Warm Daddy’s Restaurant and Ms. Tootsie Soul Food Cafe. They not only offer exquisite soul cuisine, but also are great places for socializing and entertainment. For an array of dining specialties and international delicacies, you must go to Reading Terminal, one of America’s largest and oldest farmers’ markets. And by all means, don’t leave Philly without sampling a world-famous Philly Cheesesteak!

For more information on Philadelphia and its black heritage trail, visit