In the first part of our exploration of Philadelphia, we were just getting the lay of the land, including the 55-acre, 20-city block Independence National Historical Park, the Liberty Bell Center, the National Constitution Center and several other sites in and around the downtown area. But all of that is just the tip of the iceberg of what Philly has to offer. Unique attractions and historically significant African-American sites are a big part of the story.
One of the most impressive structures anywhere in America is Philadelphia’s City Hall. Still used today for the city’s civic functions, the French Second Empire structure, which took 30 years to build, is the largest, all-masonry, load-bearing building in the world and the tallest City Hall in the U.S. at 548 feet. Tours here give visitors insights into the building’s history and architecture, including 14.5 acres of floor space, approximately 700 rooms and 250-plus lifelike marble statues adorning the exterior on all sides. The crowning touch is the statue of city founder William Penn, weighing 27 tons at a height of 37 feet, with jaw-dropping dimensions, including a 23-foot hat circumference, 18-inch nose length, 4-foot hair strands, 5-foot feet lengths and 12.5-foot arm lengths. Be sure to take the Observation Tower Tour as well, which offers a glass-enclosed, spectacular 360-degree view of the city.
Marking its 294th anniversary this year, Christ Church Burial Ground is the final resting place of Benjamin Franklin, as well as four other signers of the Declaration of Independence and many of Philly’s most prominent leaders. Featuring 1,400 gravesites, it stands as “one of America’s most interesting Colonial and Revolution-era graveyards.”
At the 975-foot tall, 58-floor Comcast Center—the tallest building in Philadelphia and the tallest “green” building in the country—you will find “The Comcast Experience.” This 2,000 square-foot, four-millimeter LED screen, the largest in the world, is an awe-inspiring attraction incorporating technological and artistic lifelike expressions at a resolution 500 percent greater than that of an HDTV. The outside features a public plaza and fountain, a wraparound energy-saving “glass curtain” offering 360-degree views of the city’s urban landscape and a striking eight-story “Winter Garden.”
Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary is unlike today’s prisons, which are designed primarily to punish and, in the process, dehumanize occupants. It came about from the desire of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons to provide a place where the true definition of the word “penitence” could take place in humane conditions. Revolutionary for its time because it incarcerated prisoners without deplorable treatment or corporal punishment; every prison in the world was soon modeled after it.
The self-guided audio tour here is simply fascinating, offering an inside look through exhibits, interactive experiences, art installations and oral histories into the lives of the prisoners and employees and its innovative design. A synagogue, barbershop, psychological and spiritual counseling, work programs and more were just a few of the other aspects added over the years. And yes, no visit here would be complete without a stop by Al Capone’s cell, an unbelievable example of how his wealth and influence could not be contained, even behind prison walls.
Even more profound here is the present-day social consciousness and public awareness component depicted in one exhibit that very poignantly, yet sadly, points out the incarceration disparities between races. But the folks here take it one step further by encouraging visitors to share their perspectives on how the prison systems—and their overall long-forgone rehabilitation intent—affects former inmates, family members of current and/or former inmates, children and society at large.
The History of African Americans in Philly
African-Americans have had a presence in Philadelphia since the early 1700s at the arrival of African slaves. By 1790, the city had the largest number of free Blacks in the country and was a hotbed for abolitionist activity. In the mid- to late-1800s, Blacks fleeing the atrocities of the South greatly increased the Black population, followed by numerous manufacturing jobs during World War II, which brought even more of our brethren here.
Today, African-Americans make up about 44 percent of the population, and the city and surrounding metro area offer a great deal for residents and visitors alike, evidenced by the number of historic, cultural, performing arts, culinary, music and other sites, attractions and venues of Afrocentric interest.
The Paul Robeson Home and Historic Marker denotes where this famous human rights activist, scholar, performer and athlete resided for the last 10 years of his life, before his death in 1976. At the African American Museum in Philadelphia—the first institution built by a major U.S. city to house and interpret the life and work of African-Americans—is one of the oldest and finest African-American museums in the country, featuring exhibits and galleries that support themes surrounding the African diaspora, the Philadelphia story and the contemporary narrative.
For theatrical adventures, visit the Freedom Theatre, the oldest Black theatrical institution in Pennsylvania, or take in a performance by Philadanco! the Philadelphia Dance Company, celebrated for “its innovation, creativity and preservation of predominantly African-American traditions in dance.”
The Johnson House Historic Site, owned by four generations of the Quaker and abolitionist Johnson family, was a vital stop on the Underground Railroad for Harriet Tubman and others during the 19th century. You can also pay homage to our fallen Black service men and women at Logan Circle at the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors. This beautiful bronze and granite sculpture is a striking memorial rising over 21 feet high.
Over 40,000 items related to African-American history, including books, letters, slave narratives, photographs, sheet music and original recordings, can be found at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, while the Balch Institution for Ethnic Studies houses an extensive collection of manuscripts, documents and artifacts relating to African-American history. The Barnes Foundation, named after Dr. Albert Barnes, is home to a significant collection of African art and its influences on other great art masters, and at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum), you’ll find an extensive collection of African art and artifacts, including Benin bronzes, embroidered garments, sculptures, jewelry and more.
These are just a few of the numerous Afrocentric sites, attractions and entities found in and around the city.
Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
African American Museum in Philadelphia, 215-574-0380, www.aampmuseum.org
All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, 215-546-7550, http://museumwithoutwallsaudio.org
Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, 215-204-6632, http://library.temple.edu
Christ’s Church Burial Grounds, 215-922-1695, www.christchurchphila.org
City Hall, 215-686-2840, www.phila.gov.
Comcast Center, www.visitphilly.com/comcast
Eastern State Penitentiary, 215-236-3300, www.easternstate.org
Freedom Theatre, 267-687-1764, www.freedomtheatre.org
Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., 215-599-0776, www.visitphilly.com
Johnson House Historic Site, 215-438-1768, www.visitphilly.com
Paul Robeson Home & Historic Marker, 215-747-4675, http://paulrobesonhouse.org
Philadanco! The Philadelphia Dance Company, 215-387-8200, www.philadanco.org
The Barnes Foundation’s, 866-849-7056, barnesfoundation.org