The state of Pennsylvania may not be at the top of everyone’s vacation bucket list, even though the legalization of casino gambling there a few years ago made it a sight more attractive to many. You can enjoy Pennsylvania’s casino action online at the SugarHouse online casino PA, but there are many more attractions in the state, and specifically in the city of Philadelphia, that need to be visited in person.
Philadelphia is one of the more culturally diverse cities in the US, and has a large African-American population. The City of Brotherly Love is known for giving the world the smooth sounds of Philly Soul from the 1970s onwards, with artists such as Archie Bell & The Drells, The O’Jays, The Three Degrees, The Delfonics and more. Later on, The Roots, Will Smith, LaBelle and Jill Scott would all call Philadelphia home.
Even before the soul era, Philly played a crucial role in the development of jazz. The Clef Club was established in 1935 by Union Local Number 274, the city’s African American Musicians Union Chapter. John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie were among the members. Redeveloped in 1978, the Clef is one of the oldest and most important dedicated jazz institutions in the US and still hosts concerts in its 240-seat performance space.
Of course, many people visit Philadelphia because of its deep connections to American history and the many museums, galleries and historic sites exploring this. What is perhaps less well known is the degree to which specifically African American history is included in this. The early days of the nation are bound up with the issue of slavery, and Philadelphia’s many museums do not shy away from documenting this. However, they also celebrate the vital contributions of African Americans to society and culture, and remember the many sacrifices they often made in the name of liberty and justice.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia
The first stop for anyone wishing to experience their heritage must be the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), on 701 Arch Street. Founded in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial celebrations, the museum is affiliated to the prestigious Smithsonian Institution and is just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell. Be sure to take a look at the modernist public sculptures outside the museum, The Whispering Bells and Nisaka, before going in to spend time seeing the museum’s central permanent exhibition, Audacious Freedom, which looks at the crucial role of African Americans in founding our nation.
Other exhibits around the museum explore the stories, history and culture of people throughout the African Diaspora, including famous citizens of Philadelphia such as Richard Allen and Octavius Catto. Photography, artifacts, video, technology, multimedia and fine art are all utilized. The upper galleries feature a range of rotating exhibitions, and there are regular events including film screenings, concerts, talks and workshops.
There is also a monthly family fun day, which is ideal if you’re traveling with children. Admission is $14 for adults or $10 for children, senior citizens and students. AAMP members get in for free.
The Colored Girls Museum
Another museum definitely worth a visit is the Colored Girls Museum on 4613 Newhall Street in Germantown, though you’ll need to make a reservation in advance. This ‘memoir museum’ is actually in the large home of Vashti DuBois, who envisioned it as “equal parts research facility, exhibition space, gathering place and think tank”. The museum honors the personal stories of ordinary women of color, and includes specific themed exhibitions. Visitors receive a salon-style guided tour that is always a unique experience.
There are many examples of public art commemorating African Americans around Philadelphia. The most important and prominent is the Octavius V. Catto Memorial in Penn Square, but Stephen Layne’s statue of Philly boxing hero Smokin’ Joe Frazier is also extremely popular.
You might also want to visit the Mother Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church and Richard Allen Museum, which sits on the oldest plot of land continually owned by African Americans in the US. Founded in 1794, this is still a functioning church but is also a museum and archive.
The Tindley Temple at 750 South Broad Street is revered as the birthplace of gospel music. This is where United Methodist Preacher Charles Albert Tindley wrote the words to the hymn ‘We Shall Overcome’ in 1901. The National Marian Anderson Museum on 762 Martin Street commemorates the opera singer, humanitarian and civil rights activist best known for her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. You can also visit the Paul Robeson House and Museum, where the singer, actor, activist, attorney, athlete and scholar spent the final decade of his life.
Philadelphia is rich in many aspects of history and culture. If you’ve ever thought about exploring African American heritage, there’s no better place to start.