Where to Learn About Philadelphia’s Black History
A guide at the African American Museum lays out museums, street art murals, and more spots where you can learn about Philly’s Black history.
It’s no secret that Philadelphia is a city rife with history, from the Liberty Bell and the area’s Revolutionary War beginnings to its role as home of the country’s first zoo, hospital, and volunteer fire company—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Philadelphia is also a rich epicenter of Black history in the United States, and there’s so much that residents and tourists alike can learn. Some may already know that Philadelphia was a significant stop on the Underground Railroad, but our city was also the site of the first national Black church in the United States, has a reputation as an early haven for African American business owners, and has supported decades of exceptional music from Black musicians—all empowering legacies outside the realm of enslavement, which Morgan Lloyd, a gallery guide at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, says is important to explore during Black History Month and beyond.
“You will find that there are people who existed within and beyond that word slavery,” says Lloyd. “Beyond that, there were Black business owners and enterprises all throughout the city and plenty of Black political figures who often get overlooked—and that's not even including all of the intersections that existed here.”
Using her experience giving tours and overseeing volunteer programs at AAMP and her own multi-generational ties to Philadelphia, Lloyd shared some of the most pertinent locations around Philly to visit to learn about “past, present, and future Black history” in our city.
Octavius V. Catto Memorial and Harriet Tubman—The Journey To Freedom Statue at City Hall
Two public art dedications to influential Black figures are located at City Hall. The Octavius V. Catto Memorial is a permanent statue on the southwest corner of City Hall commemorating the scholar, abolitionist, civil and voting rights activist, and athlete. “He existed within that beautiful Antebellum timeline and advocated for voting rights for free African Americans,” Lloyd says. “In some ways, he’s kind of like the predecessor to Martin Luther King in that he led a trolley boycott. He also created one of the first integrated sports leagues and had an integrated league in the city of Philadelphia.”
Also located at City Hall and on view until March 31, the Harriet Tubman – The Journey to Freedom statue is a nine-foot depiction of the iconic Underground Railroad icon, located on the north apron. “It’s great to see this fantastic abolitionist, showcasing her efforts in the space where a lot of people went for freedom,” Lloyd says.
One of the architects of the city’s most recognizable buildings was Julian Abele, a Philadelphia native, the first African American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's architecture program, and “the most formally educated architect in all of America.”
“A lot of people don't realize that institution was designed by an African American man,” Lloyd says. “So it’s Black history every time you look at the site that defines Philadelphia.”
A brand new mural in Brewerytown pays homage to the 1960s Philadelphia civil rights group and their leader, Cecil B. Moore, who successfully desegregated Girard College in 1965. The work, done by artists Felix St. Fort and Gabe Tiberino—combined portraits and graphic elements, like Adinkra symbols, which originate from West Africa. “Walking past it every day, because I live near it, just blows my mind all the time,” Lloyd says.
Prioritizing people over collections, The Colored Girls Museum honors stories, experiences, and histories of everyday Black and brown girls. “They do a really great job of capturing the story of young colored girls and letting them tell their own stories,” Lloyd says.
Each room in this 135-year-old Germantown home tells a story of Black women and girls through their own artwork and artifacts. The museum will reopen in March with the exhibit “One Room Schoolhouse,” inspired by the way the pandemic has impacted schooling. Admission to the museum must be made in advance for a unique salon-style tour.
Named after Harriet Tubman, this Fishtown bookstore opened shortly before the pandemic and has become a staple for not only its stock of women authors, artists, and activists, but for its community events and activism as well.
“They fight for community space, great conversation, and they’re just a great resource for education as well,” Lloyd says. On Saturdays in February, Harriett’s hosts a trolley tour, taking riders to four Black women-owned businesses in the area.
This Kensington cafe and community space also takes its name from famous historical figures: Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and abolitionist and writer Frances E.W. Harper. Aside from comforting coffees and teas, Franny Lou’s also hosts community events. “It’s a great cafe and another space that fosters community while informed by those great ancestries,” Lloyd says.
Founded in 1976 with the mission of preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting the heritage of African Americans, the African American Museum in Philadelphia hosts exhibits based around three themes: the African Diaspora, the Philadelphia Story, and the Contemporary Narrative. Their permanent exhibition recounts stories of prominent people of African descent in Philadelphia during the country’s early years, and all year long, the museum welcomes artists, musicians, and activists for community events.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia hosts Black History Month programming all month long.