Guide to African American Cultural and Historic Sites in Philadelphia
A citywide exploration of museums, historical landmarks, churches, art galleries and public spaces...
Just as U.S. history is African American history, Greater Philadelphia history is African American history.
The region is home to the founding church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination ( Mother Bethel A.M.E. ), the country’s first major museum devoted to Black American history ( The African American Museum in Philadelphia ) and many stops along the Underground Railroad.
Destinations such as Philadelphia’s Historic District and Historic Germantown tell of the successes, struggles and contributions of African Americans through the centuries. And in September 2017, City Hall welcomed the city’s first statue representing an African American on public property: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial depicts the bravery of a staunch 19th-century civil rights advocate.
This list features museums, landmarks, churches and other sites that reflect both origins in the African continent and history on the American continent through a host of educational opportunities for visitors of all ages.
Historic Sites & Monuments
The home of the abolitionist Judge Richard Peters, opponent to the Fugitive Slave Act and precedent-setting judicial decision-maker, has been preserved and transformed into the Underground Railroad Museum at Belmont Mansion . Visitors can take a self-guided tour to view historical artifacts and hear narratives about the site’s history, including that of Cornelia Wells, a free African American woman who lived there. Reservations are needed for groups of 10 or more.
Located just outside Philadelphia, Bucks County is home to a number of significant sites that were part of the Underground Railroad. Towns like Yardley, Bristol, New Hope and Doylestown feature churches, farms, taverns and more where enslaved people were aided in their journey north, per this detailed guide from our colleagues at Visit Bucks County.
At Cliveden , tours and artifacts uncover details about life on Northern plantations, efforts to escape enslavement and the legal maneuverings of one of the North’s largest owners of enslaved people to run a plantation in abolitionist Philadelphia.
When visitors schedule an appointment for a tour of the Concord School House and Upper Burying Ground, they can view the original desks used by African American students and abolitionists in the 1850s.
Historic Fair Hill , a Quaker burial ground built in 1703, is the final resting place of Lucretia Mott, Robert Purvis and other abolitionists. Today, it’s also an environmental education center.
A crucial part of the Colonial Germantown Historic District, this site attained a National Historic Landmark designation for its role in the Underground Railroad . Tours offer visitors an opportunity to learn about the injustices of slavery and the 19th-century resident Johnson family, who participated in the Underground Railroad and risked their lives offering refuge to freedom seekers. Among the freedom fighters who stayed here: William Still and, according to family lore, Harriet Tubman.
Volunteers at the Kennett Underground Railroad Center offer tours of key sites in the Kennett area, located an hour southwest of Center City Philadelphia. Tours normally run from the spring through the fall, but visitors should continue to check the organization’s website for the latest scheduling information.
The Liberty Bell Center welcomes visitors to learn about the connection between the bell and African American history. Videos and interactive displays explain how the abolitionist movement adopted the object as a symbol of freedom based on the inscribed quote from Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Beginning in the late 1800s, the Liberty Bell traveled around the country to expositions to help heal the divisions of the Civil War, reminding Americans of earlier days when they worked together for independence.
In a city of more than 1,500 public statues, this monument to a 19th-century civil rights crusader is Center City ’s first statue of a specific African American. Catto, South Carolinian by birth and Philadelphian by choice, led efforts to desegregate the city’s streetcars, fought for equal voting rights, worked as an intellectual and teacher, and was also a star baseball player. On October 10, 1871, the first election day after the 15th Amendment guaranteed African American men the right to vote in Pennsylvania, he was shot and killed on South Street. Sculptor Branly Cadet created the 12-foot-tall bronze memorial, which features Catto in a powerful stance, walking toward a granite representation of a mid-19th-century ballot box.
Once Upon A Nation’s Storytelling Benches at three locations around Philadelphia’s Historic District offer people of all ages a free perch and a professionally told story in three to five minutes. Engaging storytellers regale audiences with tales of the well-known and not-so-well-known people who shaped America’s history. Among the real-life characters are Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who escaped from George Washington’s Philadelphia home to find freedom in New Hampshire; iconic reformer, author, statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and Caroline LeCount, who, nearly 100 years before Rosa Parks, successfully won the right for all people to ride in Philadelphia’s streetcars. Benches are open on select days from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Maps of the bench locations are available at the Independence Visitor Center.
At The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation , visitors view the structural fragments of the residence of Presidents Washington and Adams. This is the site where the country’s first president enslaved nine Africans, including Oney “Ona” Judge, who escaped to freedom, despite Washington’s efforts to capture her. The free open-air Independence National Historical Park site, on the same block as The Liberty Bell Center , invites visitors to learn about the events that transpired through illustrated glass panels and video reenactments, and then partake in silent reflection.
Tour the Georgian estate of James Logan, secretary to Pennsylvania founder William Penn and mentor to Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram. Situated on three acres of the original 500-acre plantation that once housed enslaved people (including housekeeper Dinah, who reportedly saved the mansion from being burned during the Revolutionary War), Stenton ’s large rooms, exquisite woodwork and preserved details make this estate a must-see.
Where: Stenton, 4601 N. 18th Street
Washington Square , one of city planner William Penn’s five original parks, was once known as Congo Square. A wayside in the city-block park describes activities of three centuries ago, when free and enslaved Africans gathered at the then-potter’s field during holidays and fairs to celebrate traditions of their homelands.
Valley Forge National Historical Park tells the story of Washington’s Continental Army, which included many African American soldiers. The park is also home to the Patriots of African Descent Monument , honoring those of African descent who served during the Valley Forge encampment.
Historic Parker Hall, a restored World War II USO site for African American soldiers and their families in Germantown , honors military veterans. Artifacts and memorabilia backdrop the museum as part of ACES’ mission to support, educate, serve and celebrate the veteran community.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia , founded in 1976, is the first institution built by a major U.S. city to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage and culture of African Americans. The museum takes a fresh and bold look at the stories of African Americans and their role in the founding of the nation through the core exhibit, Audacious Freedom . Other exhibitions and programs reveal the history, stories and cultures of those of African descent throughout the African diaspora.
Historic, residential Germantown is home to the comfortable dwelling of Vashti DuBois, who built her lived-in “ memoir museum ” to be “equal parts research facility, exhibition space, gathering place and think tank.” Inspired by and dedicated to Black girls and women, the space’s displays don’t always contain historic artifacts, but they always are true to history. Learn more about the museum in this episode of Love + Grit , Visit Philadelphia’s podcast.
This historic Germantown museum , open for tours by appointment, displays and explains thousands of “slavery artifacts — ironware, shackles, branding irons — that restrained, confined and often killed the enslaved Africans who were forced to wear them,” owner Gwen Ragsdale said. There are also ship manifests, auction signs, and Jim Crow objects that segregated and stereotyped African Americans.
Telling the story of the Revolutionary War through personal stories, this venue highlights the African American experience during this tumultuous time. Subjects include Black Loyalist soldiers; Africans enslaved in Virginia; William Lee, George Washington’s enslaved valet; James Forten, a 14-year-old who volunteered aboard a privateer ship; and Phillis Wheatley, America’s first published Black female poet.
The National Constitution Center (NCC) uses hands-on activities to illustrate the contributions of notable African Americans, delves into pivotal Supreme Court cases and explores the amendments that established rights for all. The attraction displays an extremely rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War alcove. A more modern highlight: the original, signed copy of Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered in 2008 at the National Constitution Center. In 2019, the center opened its new permanent exhibition, Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality , which is the first in the country to explore the amendments to the U.S. Constitution that ended slavery.
The National Liberty Museum presents the enduring story of liberty, both in history and today. The Heroes from Around the World gallery spotlights notable people from all walks of life and time periods who protected and advanced freedom, including well-known figures such as Nelson Mandela and everyday heroes such as Gail Gibson, a New Orleans nurse whose bravery helped save lives during Hurricane Katrina. The Live Like a Hero gallery showcases teachers, students, police officers, firefighters and other ordinary citizens who use their voices and talents to advocate for positive change.
An understated facade fronts the three-story former home of opera singer, humanitarian and civil rights icon Marian Anderson. The museum , listed on the National Register of Historic Places, reveals the life and work of the contralto, the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Anderson is most remembered for her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, but she honed her talents before the parishioners of Union Baptist Church just across the street.
West Philadelphia’s Paul Robeson House served as the residence for the esteemed human-rights activist, scholar, attorney, actor, athlete and singer during the last decade of his life. Tours (by appointment only) give visitors a chance to hear songs he recorded, learn about Robeson’s politics and discover his life of accomplishments — including his family’s 18th-century roots in Philadelphia.
Julian Abele, the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, played a key role in designing two iconic Philly buildings: the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Free Library of Philadelphia ’s Parkway Central branch on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway .
Where: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
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Guest-curated by University of Pennsylvania professor Tukufu Zuberi, the exhibit Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River in the Independence Seaport Museum uses the city’s eastern river to uncover the African experience in Philadelphia. The 300-year-old story tells of Middle Passage, enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow and civil rights through artifacts from the museum’s collection and compelling first-person accounts.
In 1792, Bishop Absalom Jones founded the United States’ first Black Episcopal church, with congregation members from the Free African Society, near what is now Washington Square . Today, the church ’s traditions of outreach and spirited worship continue in West Philadelphia’s Overbrook Farms neighborhood. Call in advance for information about setting up a tour.
In 1779, the Quakers who worshipped at the Arch Street Friends Meeting House voted to expel any member who refused to free his slaves.
This vaunted, circa-1744 house of worship — where Franklin, Washington and Ross were congregants — ordained Absalom Jones as the country’s first African American Episcopalian priest, baptized 25% of the free and enslaved African Americans in Philadelphia over a 20-year period, and helped establish a school for enslaved people.
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church , founded by Bishop Richard Allen in 1794, sits on the oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African Americans, and is the mother church of the nation’s first Black denomination. Today, Mother Bethel is a church (where the congregation worships weekly), museum and archive. The museum houses the tomb of Bishop Richard Allen and artifacts dating to the 1600s, tracing the history of the AME Church. Reservations are required for museum tours.
Where: Mother Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and Richard Allen Museum, 419 S. 6th Street
St. George’s United Methodist Church welcomed Black worshippers and licensed Richard Allen and Absalom Jones as its first African American Methodist lay preachers before other local African American churches formed. In 1787, a dispute over segregated seating policies led to a walkout and the creation of African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and Mother Bethel AME Church. St. George’s continues its social justice work through programs that provide low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees. Portraits, items of worship, manuscripts and other artifacts are on display in the original building. Museum tours are available by appointment only .
As one of the nation’s most honored Black professional theater companies, this theater has staged productions from such celebrated African American playwrights as James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, Charles Fuller, Ntozake Shange, August Wilson and LeRoi Jones. Its alumni include Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men.
Formed in 1935 through the efforts of Philadelphia’s African American musicians’ union, Union Local No. 274 of the American Federation of Musicians, the Clef counted among its members John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and played a significant role in the advancement of jazz in Philadelphia and the world. In 1978, it expanded its mission to include jazz performance, instruction and preservation, becoming the nation’s first facility constructed specifically as a jazz institution. A list of upcoming concerts can be found on its website .
Residents and visitors can find a phenomenal selection of art by Black artists within permanent collections, special exhibitions and exciting shows at museums and galleries around Philadelphia. Media of all sorts from local, national and international artists can be viewed at venues throughout the city, including the contemporary works at Rush Arts Philadelphia, original prints at the Brandywine Workshop and African masks at the Barnes Foundation. Peruse a guide to destinations for works by Black artists to learn more.
Historic Sites & Monuments
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