The African American Experience in Philadelphia

History tells us who we are. It is the collective story of what it means to be a Philadelphian. To live here. To work here. The African American history collection online seeks to give visitors a snapshot of the complex history of African Americans in Philadelphia. The Museum is proud to present its first online exhibition, a compilation of 200 diverse objects spanning five centuries that illustrate the broad experience of African Americans in Philadelphia, at work and at play, dealing with struggles and celebrating successes.

Beyond just a collection of objects, the African American history collection also features “The African American Experience in Philadelphia,” inviting users to help us piece together the historical experience of African Americans in Philadelphia through five defining themes: creating community, at work, leisure time, 20th-century political life, and moving beyond caricature (the evolving visual presentation of African Americans).
We welcome you to join us in learning the story. See all 200 items here, and read on for the "African American Experience in Philadelphia" lesson. 

The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent’s Collection contains approximately 600 artifacts relating to black history in the city. These items, each with their own story, are part of a broader narrative about the historical African American experience in Philadelphia. Of the 200 objects selected for the Preserve African American History in Pennsylvania Project, many items fall into one of five thematic categories: 

  • Creating Community

  • At Work

  • Leisure Time

  • 20th-Century Political Life

  • Moving Beyond Caricature

Image: National Negro Banker Association 97.98.2424

Read on to learn more about the historical context for these categories, paired with related objects and images from the collection. To view the 200 item African American History Collection, click here.

Creating Community

Philadelphia’s black communities have a long history that is integrally tied to the city’s role in American race relations. From its founding, Philadelphia’s geographic location positioned it to be a hub of issues relating to slavery and abolition. Over time, the city has been many things: a fugitive slave port, a seat of African and African American community-building, an organizing ground for African American participation in the Civil War, and a staging ground for the civil rights and social equality struggles that continued for many decades after the end of slavery. 

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Philadelphia’s black communities had created a number of organizations and institutions to cement and support family and community life. The infrastructure of black churches, self-help clubs, fraternal and social welfare organizations, neighborhood groups, and professional organizations provided African Americans with a way to express their values, demonstrate their talents, and confront segregation.

Stephen Smith (1795–1873), c. 1850.

James Stidun (dates unknown); oil on canvas.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.
Gift to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania from Henrietta Clemens Mousserone, 1931.
[Abolition / Slavery / Charitable Organization / Art, HSP. 1931.4, dimensions 20” x 30” unframed, 40” x 35” framed]



Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871) Lodge No. 20, c. 1900.
Elks Lodge banner.
Maker unknown; wood, silk, metal.
Museum purchase, 2004.
[Organization / Clubs & Associations / Politics, 04.3.1, dimensions 48” x 3” x 75”]



Should Negroes Come North! c. 1910.
Mother Bethel Information Bureau, printed by Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia; ink    on paper.
Gift of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, 1985.
[Migration / Work / Religion - AME, 85.54.1, dimensions 8 ½” x 10 ¾”]



Sister Falaka Fattah (born Frances Ellen Brown, aka Queen Mother), c. 1980.
Neil Benson; gelatin silver print on paper.
Gift of Neil Benson, 2008.
[Women / Charitable Organization / Children, 39.002, dimensions 8” x 10”, image 6 ½” x 9 5/8”]



Black Bottom Association, 1992.
Screen Stars; silk screened polyester on cotton.
Gift of John Wilson, 1993.
[Organization / West Philadelphia / Clothing, 93.41.1, dimensions 29” x 32”]



Reverend William H. Gray, III (1941-present) preaching at Bright Hope Baptist Church, 1979.
Neil Benson; gelatin silver print on paper.
Gift of Neil Benson, 2008.
[Religion – Baptist / Politics, 54.025, dimensions 8” x 10”, image 9 ½” x 6 ½”]



A child in a gardening program sponsored by the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, 1987.
Martin Kane (dates unknown); gelatin silver print on paper.
Gift of Martin Kane, 1989.
[Neighborhood / Charitable Organization / Children, 89.81.1, dimensions 9” x 13 ½”, matted 16” x 20”] 


At Work

Philadelphia’s African American community has worked, both enslaved and free, over more than four centuries to build and sustain the city and its people.   Beginning in 1684, enslaved Africans arriving in Philadelphia were forced to help with the hard labor of settling a frontier.  By 1780, African Americans who escaped from states where slavery was legal were settling in Philadelphia, a free city in a free state where the availability of jobs increased through the end of the Civil War in 1865. In the late 1880s and into the twentieth century, African Americans escaping racism and poverty in the “Jim Crow” South continued to migrate to Philadelphia, drawn by the hope of work and an established African American community.
Racial discrimination in education and hiring practices limited the types of work open to most African Americans in Philadelphia.  They were typically relegated to low-paid hard labor and service jobs. However, the reality of racial segregation also expanded opportunities for African Americans by creating an incentive for them to establish a parallel world of businesses and institutions. Since the late 1960s, the gradual decline of racial segregation has transformed many workplaces.


Manifest of Slaves…, 1817.
Front view of manifest for slaves bound for Philadelphia from Charleston, South Carolina, 1817.
Maker unknown; ink pen on paper.
Museum purchase, 1944.
[Slavery / Shipping,, dimensions 13 ¼” x 8”]



District and Port of Charleston, S.C.…, 1817.
Back view of manifest for slaves bound for Philadelphia from Charleston, South Carolina, 1817.
Maker unknown; ink pen on paper.
Museum purchase, 1944.
[Slavery / Shipping,, dimensions 13 ¼” x 8”]



Phoenix Hose Company parade hat, c. 1860s.
Made by James Hill (dates unknown), painted by David Bustill Bowser (1820-1900); painted felt.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.
Gift to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania from Mary E. Perot, 1994.
[Clothing / Fire Fighting / Art, HSP.E-1-37, dimensions 13.75” x 12.25” x 6.5”]



Men working in trenches, 1917.
Photograph taken at Hog Island Shipyards.
Maker unknown; gelatin silver print on paper.
Gift of the United States Federal Maritime Commission,1939.
[Work,, dimensions 8” x 10”]



Journalist and activist Chuck Stone (1924-present, on right), c. 1980.
Neil Benson; gelatin silver print on paper.
Gift of Neil Benson, 2008.
[Work / Civil Rights, 132.001, dimensions 8” x 10”]


Baseball Card

Garry Maddox (1949-present) outfield, c. 1986.
Fleer Chewing Gum Company; ink on paper.
Bequest of Helen M. Beitler, 2004.
[Sports, 03.2.440, dimensions 2 ½” x 3 ½”]



Men in front of the Citizens Southern Bank, c. 1930.
Meeting of National Negro Bankers Association, September 15thand 16th, 1930.
Maker unknown; gelatin silver print onpaper.
[Organization / Work / Finance, 97.98.2424, dimensions 5” x 4”]



Contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) performing at Academy of Music Stage Door canteen, c. 1945.
Saffer, gelatin silver print on paper.
[Performing Arts / War – World War II / Women / Music, 89.98.305, dimensions 8 ¼” x 10”]


 Leisure Time

Racial segregation in law and custom limited access to many public places and organizations in Philadelphia for African Americans from the end of the Civil War into the 1960s. As a result, African Americans created their own infrastructure of leisure-time activities, community organizations, and businesses. Through this infrastructure, African Americans had the opportunity to assume positions of leadership, status, and responsibility often denied them in the work place and more generally in society. The longevity and size of Philadelphia’s African American community positioned it to emerge as a leading center for blacks to create and develop a wide variety of leisure-time pursuits in the arts, sports, religious institutions, and fraternal and beneficial organizations. Black family and neighborhood life offered other avenues for fun and relaxation as well as support.
The gradual dismantling of racial segregation in the latter half of the twentieth century began a process that opened doors to diverse groups spending leisure time together on playgrounds, in parks, in neighborhoods, and in shopping and entertainment areas. Nonetheless, the separation by race in leisure time activities persists, reflecting habit and socio-economic factors.


The Royal Theater, 1524–1534 South St. c. 1970.
Ed Carlin (dates); gelatin silver print on paper.
Gift of David Kaper, 2006.
Royal Theater at 1524 South Street opened in 1920 (closed 1970) provided African-Americans a venue to see movies and live performances during decades when most theaters were racially segregated.
[Entertainment / Theater / Music / Performing Arts, 3304I, dimensions 8” x 10”]


West Oak Lane neighbors relaxing, c. 1970. 
Ed Carlin (dates); gelatin silver print on paper.
Gift of David Kaper, 2006.
[Street Scene / North Philadelphia, 3027V, dimensions 8” x 10”]


Woman’s hat, 2003.
Tim Crawford milliner, S & S Hat Company, Inc.; glass, fabric, and feather on felt.
Philadelphia milliner Timothy Crawford, a former professional dancer, brings a theatrical flair to his hats designs.
Gift of Laura May, 2003.
[Clothing / Fashion / Women, 03.5.1, dimensions 16” diameter 5” to crown]



At the Game, 1939.
Albert Gold (1916-2006); drypoint etching on paper, pencil signed.
Gift of Mrs. WilliamB. Linn, 1951.
[Sports / Art, 51.1.17, dimensions 5 5/8” x 8 7/8”]



Rag doll, c. 1940.
Maker unknown; muslin, cotton.
Gift ofJohn Stella, 1995.
[Games & Toys / Play / Children, 95.10.960, dimensions 14” height x 14” width]

Twentieth Century Political Life

Philadelphia’s African American community has participated in the city’s political life since the late 1700s, albeit initially outside the formal structures that excluded blacks. During the decades before the Civil War, African Americans developed a robust political culture centered on economic justice, voting rights, the anti-slavery movement, and the Underground Railroad.  Within these movements they honed a wide range of political skills and created networks that ultimately facilitated full citizenship. 
By the twentieth century, black Philadelphians emerged as major players in the city’s political life. This was in part due to the dramatic growth of the city’s African American population through two waves of migration from the South (1890-1920 and 1930-1970), coupled with the Civil Rights movement.  African American political leaders both functioned within government and challenged government from the outside.   Philadelphia elected W. Wilson Goode as its first African American mayor in 1983. In 2011, Michael Nutter is the city’s third African American mayor. African Americans from Philadelphia hold leadership positions in City Council, the state legislature, and the United States Congress.

Political Button

[W. Wilson] Goode (1938-present) for Philadelphia, c. 1980s.
Goode for Mayor Committee; lithograph on metal.
Gift of Isador Kranzel,2000.
[Politics, 00.9.13, dimensions 1 ½” diameter]




Philadelphia City Councilman Lucien E. Blackwell (1931-2003), 1981.
Neil Benson; gelatin silver print on paper.
Gift of Neil Benson, 2008.
[Politics, 13.002, dimensions 8” x 10”]




N.A.A.C.P., c. 1950.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) cap.
Maker unknown; paint on cloth.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies Collection, 2006.
[Organization / Clothing / Politics / Civil Rights, 06.1.3, dimensions 11 3/8” x 5”]



Union Local 488 representing non-professional hospital employees protesting the closing of Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH) in front of City Hall, 1976.
Neil Benson; gelatin silver print on cardstock.
Gift of Neil Benson, 2008.
[Demonstration – Protest / City Hall / Women / Organization, 81.026, dimensions 8” x 10”, image 6 5/16” x 9 ½”]



Willa T.[Talley] Moss (1895-1994) for legislature, date unknown.
Political campaign button.
Maker unknown; ink, metal, cardboard.
Anonymous gift, 2010.
[Politics / Women, 10.18.2, dimensions 3 ½” diameter]



Marian Tasco for Council Democrat 9thDistrict, 1987.
Friends of Marian Tasco Committee; red, white, blue ink on cardboard.
[Politics / Women, 97.98.1217, dimensions 13” x 22”]


Moving Beyond Caricature

Nineteenth and early twentieth century visual representations of African Americans in advertising and art, and on objects, reflects the ways in which white culture at large perceived the physical appearance, socio-economic status, and capabilities of African Americans.   Exceptions exist primarily when the artist or craftsman is African American.  The Philadelphia History Museum’s collection contains images and objects that range from caricatures presenting African Americans in demeaning postures and situations to those that depict the breadth and complexity of the African American experience in realistic ways. 
The broad impact of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s can be seen in a wide range of products and advertising presenting African Americans in respectful ways and affirming their accomplishments and appearance.  The gradual dismantling of segregation in law and custom opened opportunities for artists, regardless of ethnicity, to find audiences for more complex and nuanced visual representations of black Americans alone and in relationship to other groups.   


Convention 2000 Barbie doll, 2000.
Barbie doll given to the delegates during the 2000 Republican National convention held in Philadelphia.
Mattel, Inc.; plastic, cloth.
Gift of the Republican National Committee, 2000.
[Games & Toys / Politics, 00.41.51.D, dimensions 11 1/2” doll, 12 ¾” x 4 ½” x 2 ½” box]



Huggy Bean, 1985.
Golden Ribbon Playthings, Inc.; plastic, cloth.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies Collection, 2006.
[Games & Toys / Children / Play, 06.1.74, dimensions 17” doll 17 ½” x 10 ¾” x 4 ¾” box]



Major Martin R. Delaney(1812-1885) U.S.A., Promoted on the Battle Field for Bravery, c. 1865.
E. Herline, D. Hensel & Company; chromolithograph on paper.
Museum purchase, 1959.
[War - Civil War / Abolition / Slavery, 59.3.2, dimensions 20” x 26” matted, 16 ¾” x 21” unmatted]



Wind-up Charleston Trio, c. 1922.
Louis Marx & Company; lithograph print on tin.
Museum purchase, 1980.
[Games & Toys / Caricature / Children / Play, 80.35.321, dimensions 5” x 3 1/8” x 9”]


Ferdinand Strauss Company; paint on tin.
Museum purchase, 1980.
[Games & Toys / Caricature / Children / Play, 80.35.322, dimensions
man 5 ½” height 4 ¾” circumference, cart 4 ¼” x 3 3/8” x 2 ¼”]


The New Broadway Limited, 1949.
Advertisement for Pennsylvania Railroad.
Maker unknown; ink on paper.
Gift of William Scott, 1989.
[Advertising / Transportation / Work, 89.50.106, dimensions 4 ¾” x 7”]


Horace Weston, The World Renowned Banjoist, Testifies as Follows, 1894.
Banjo advertisement in S.S. Stewart Banjo Catalogue and Price-list.
S.S. Stewart Banjo Manufactory; lithograph print on paper.
Gift of Helen M. Beitler, 1994.
[Performing Arts / Music / Advertising / Work / Minstrel, 94.3.584, dimensions 11 ½” x 9 ¼”]



Meet Betty Pearson, c. 1995.
Maker unknown; ink on paper.
Gift of Strawbridge & Clothier department store, 1996.
[Retail / Advertising / Women,, dimensions 8 ½” x 12” sheet 6 ½” x 11” image]

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