If you know the story of Harriet Tubman, you know the road to freedom passed through Philadelphia, an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Learn the history by walking it.Less
Two doors from La Famiglia Restaurant stood London Coffee House, where merchants and political leaders conducted business. Outside, enslaved Africans were sold on the auction block. English essayist Thomas Paine (1737-1809) lived in the boarding house next door and saw the auctions from his window. In his 1775 essay “African Slavery in America,” he called it an “outrage against Humanity and Justice.” A month after it was published, the first antislavery society in America began in Philadelphia.
This was once the home of Anthony Benezet (1713-1784), a white Quaker teacher and abolitionist. Starting in 1750, Benezet taught night classes to Black boys in his home, and around 1770, convinced the Quakers to open a school for Black students. In 1775, he started the “Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage,“ the first abolitionist society in America; after his death, Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush reorganized it as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Pennsylvania Hall once stood at 190 N. 6th St. It was the first building constructed specifically for abolitionist meetings, and opened on a Monday in May 1838. On Tuesday, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women began. The city asked that meetings be white women only. The abolitionists refused. A mob broke into the building to interrupt the speakers and tossed rocks through windows from outside. A few days later, the building was burned to the ground.
When Philly was the nation’s capital, a mansion at Sixth and Market was the White House. George Washington kept nine people enslaved there. He used a loophole in Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, which said that an enslaved person who lived in the state for six months would be free. Washington rotated servants to his Mount Vernon estate before six months had passed. Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 here. But in 1796, one woman, Oney Judge, is believed to have escaped.
This park was originally called Southeast Square when William Penn designed the city. It was named after George Washington in 1825. But before that, it was known as Congo Square, because it was where Africans and Black Americans, both free and enslaved, gathered in their free time or on holidays. Congo Square was also a burial ground for the city’s black population. People would visit the graves of their family members and pour libations and leave food.
Bishop Richard Allen was born into slavery, and bought his freedom. Allen went on to found Mother Bethel in 1794; it’s on the oldest parcel of U.S. land continuously owned by Black Americans and the oldest AME church in the nation. The church became a site on the Underground Railroad, its basement serving as a hiding place for fugitives. Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and William Still all spoke here.
Across the street from St. Peter’s School, at 336 Lombard, you’ll find the historic home of James Forten. Born free in Philadelphia, Forten (1766-1842), was a student at the school that Anthony Benezet started for Black children. After the Revolutionary War Forten apprenticed with sailmaker Robert Bridges and bought the company when Bridges retired. He was a wealthy entrepreneur and inventor, and helped finance the antislavery causes including The Liberator newspaper.
Across the street from the Palumbo Recreation Center at 625 S. Delhi St. was the William Still House. Still (1821-1902) helped hundreds of people flee slavery. Born free in Burlington County, N.J., to former slaves, he worked for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, hiding and assisting fugitives, including his brother. His book, The Underground Railroad, is an important record of the time, and mentions Harriett Tubman: “in point of courage ... she was without her equal."
Henry Minton was a prominent leader in the free Black community in Philadelphia, hosting abolitionist meetings with Frederick Douglass and William Still. Abolitionist John Brown is thought to have spent the night at Minton’s house on his way to his ill-fated raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, where he planned to steal arms to free enslaved Black people. Brown and others, captured in the raid, were hanged for treason and murder. The raid is considered a pre-cursor to the Civil War.
Museum founder J. Justin Ragsdale began collecting items related to slavery more than 40 years ago. Now, he and his wife, Gwen Ragsdale, operate the museum at the Germantown Historical Society. This museum includes shackles, chains, coffles, branding irons, and other ironware used to punish and confine enslaved African Americans. The collection also includes examples of “Jim Crow“-era objects that were used to ridicule and demean African Americans and create racist attitudes toward Black people.