Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“Independent by Design”

By Renée S. Gordon

Philadelphia’s variously recognized as “The City of Murals,” “The City of Restaurants,” “The City of the Arts” and “The City of Neighborhoods.” It boasts more than 3,000 murals—a greater number than any other city in the world!—eclectic restaurants and shops plus a host of internationally renowned museums including the most prized collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in the nation exhibited in the Barnes Museum. Philadelphia is such a special city that it is the only World Heritage City in the nation.

“I’d like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do.” —Mae West

Within walking distance of the Barnes is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a collection exceeding 220,000 items, the Rodin Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Rodin houses the largest collection of Auguste Rodin sculptures outside of France. The Thinker greets you on the exterior and invites you to explore the museum and grounds and additional recognizable works such as The Kiss and The Burghers of Calais.

The Pennsylvania Academy, founded in 1805, is a personal favorite. It is both the oldest and the earliest art school and museum in the country. The complex, two adjacent buildings and exterior exhibits, contains art that dates from the founding of the country to contemporary works.

There is much to see and do but the first choice of students and visitors alike is almost always the most historic mile in the United States and the 55-acre Independence National Historical Park. On Memorial Day 2016 Philadelphia renamed the Historic District and launched a new campaign with renewed emphasis on Historic Philadelphia. A plethora of new and enhanced programs and informational services will be offered including the Historic Philadelphia Pass. The pass, $18 for adults and $13 for children, includes single entry to three premier sites and two days of rides on the city’s downtown loop PHLASH. The mobile-friendly sites facilitate ease of touring and are an ideal and accessible planning tool.

Pres's House

The country is commemorating the centennial of the National Park system and everyone is being encouraged to “find your park.” In the 100 years since Yellowstone was inaugurated more than 405 parks have been created, nine within the Philadelphia area. There are five within the boundaries of Historic Philadelphia, including the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site (NMS), Gloria Dei Church NHS, Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial and Independence National Historic Park. Kosciuszko National Memorial at 0.02-miles is the smallest park in the system.

If there is any city in the country that was created to foster freedom, Philadelphia owns first place. It goes without saying that the efforts at freedom and equality were not always widely accepted nor were they always met with success, but the seed for many of the country’s most revolutionary ideas found fertile soil here. Philadelphia was the sole colonial city that was not originally a fort and was built without walls. The city was the first planned city in the country, followed a grid pattern and consisted of an area bordered by two rivers and Vine and South Streets. South Street was where the Mason-Dixon Line began. The first completed building was a tavern on Dock Street and the first brick building was Penn’s home.

Penn ensured that Native Americans were welcome, as were free blacks (although Penn was a slaveholder) and as a result Philadelphia was always culturally diverse. The first documented black resident arrived prior to Penn in 1639. Anthony, a West Indian, lived on the site of the current airport on Tinicum Island. In 1684 Quakers purchased 150 Africans and four years later the city’s Germantown Quakers wrote an antislavery petition in the first official protest against African slavery. In 1671 Penn left orders before sailing to England for his slaves to be freed but his orders were not carried out. The first gradual abolition act was passed by the state and 31 years before the Civil War all of Philadelphia’s 14,500 black population was free and constituted the largest and wealthiest free blacks in the hemisphere.

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is celebrating its 200th anniversary. It was founded in 1794 by Richard Allen for African Americans who were denied the ability to worship with white parishioners by being seated in a separate section. In 1815 the AME Church was established and it currently resides on the longest held acreage owned by African Americans in the country at 6th & Lombard.

Allen dedicated the first building in 1794, an old blacksmith shop he purchased and relocated. A year later documents show that Allen secreted 30 Jamaican freedom seekers within the church. The Blacksmith Shop Meeting House was replaced in 1805. In 1816 a conference was held at Bethel to organize the AME Church. The bicentennial has been commemorated with a Richard Allen Forever Stamp, the 39th in the Black Heritage series. Tours of the church and a museum and the tomb of Richard and Sarah Allen are in the undercroft are offered.

Liberty Bell

Independence National Park is the city’s crown jewel and major attraction. The park focuses on the U.S.’s journey to nationhood from the Intolerable Acts of 1774 to the relocation of the nation’s capitol from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800 through sites, attractions, reenactments and interpretive displays. This is an ideal destination today just as it was in colonial times. The city’s central location, accessibility, sophistication and culture made it a perfect location for the meetings of the congressional sessions and later as the country’s seat of government.

Independence Square is the most recognizable site and it contains the Pennsylvania State House where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were created in the Assembly Room. The U.S. Supreme Court met in Congress Hall from 1791-1800 and Congress met in Congress Hall from 1790-1800. I strongly suggest that you arrive early for the tour. Carpenter’s Hall is equally famous. The 1770s structure was the site of the meeting of the First Continental Congress.

The Liberty Bell Pavilion houses the iconic Liberty Bell that hung in the Pennsylvania State House in 1853. Antislavery groups seized upon the bell as a symbol in the 1830s and it was they who named it the Liberty Bell.

Very close by is the President’s House, the first executive mansion, where Presidents George Washington and John Adams lived prior to the government’s move to DC. Adams never owned a slave but Washington did and during his tenure in Philadelphia nine enslaved people worked in the mansion. Their stories are interpreted as part of the story of the first presidential couple. Two of the stories are about two his slaves who self-emancipated, Hercules, the chef and Oney Judge, a house servant.

The stories of both the enslaved and the free are told in the park in a variety of ways. Franklin Court is a complex on the site of Franklin’s home. Visitors can tour a print shop, active post office with a unique postmark and a creative museum filled with interactive displays, videos and artifacts.

Jefferson boarded several blocks from the State House in what is now the Declaration House. It is here that he penned our founding document with the inclusion of a statement that would have banned slavery. Later, in order to get the declaration ratified it was necessary to remove the clause. Visitors can read the entire document on display inside the Graff Declaration House.

The Greek Revival Second Bank of the United States has reopened as the Portrait Gallery showcasing more than 100 portraits of “worthy personages” from the 18th and 19th Centuries. The collection is centered around works by Charles W. Peale. The current exhibition, “People of Independence 1750- 1840” includes a roster of colonials including Bartram, Hancock, Paine, Dolley Madison, Jefferson and Washington.

Philadelphia is indeed designed for independence and it carries that forward into this century. Everything was created to allow visitors to pick and choose including the new 24-site Historic Trail.


More Information…

– Photos courtesy Visit Philly

Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.

Renee GordonRenée S. Gordon has written a weekly travel column for the Philadelphia Sun for the past 14 years and has published travel articles in numerous publications. Her columns focus on cultural, historic and heritage tourism and she specializes in sites and attractions related to African American and African Diaspora history. Renée serves as a consultant for educational trips and history-related tourist destinations. She considers herself a “missionary journalist” and as such she continues to promote heritage and sustainable tourism. She has been honored with several awards including the 2013 Recipient of African Diaspora World Tourism and Flame Keeper in Media Award for Travel Writing.

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