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New 5th Street subway murals tell a more expansive story of the city’s history

The new “Portal to Discovery” can be seen in the passageways of the 5th Street/Independence Hall SEPTA station. An exhibit at Woodmere Art Museum tells the backstory.

Artist Tom Judd, 68, of Germantown, at the newly renovated 5th Street/Independence Hall SEPTA station. Judd won a contest to paint a mural inside the station.
Artist Tom Judd, 68, of Germantown, at the newly renovated 5th Street/Independence Hall SEPTA station. Judd won a contest to paint a mural inside the station.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As an eastbound train rattled and groaned its way to a halt recently inside the newly rebuilt 5th St./Independence Hall station, subway riders could get glimpses of a new mural through the moving car’s windows.

A whir of bright color and American history rolled by in a collection of larger-than-life portraits of prominent Philadelphians from the city’s colonial and abolitionist past, framed within the train’s window frames:

There was Thomas Jefferson alongside abolitionist William Still. Riders saw Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first secretary of the Treasury, not far from a formal portrait of Jane Johnson, an enslaved woman who fled to freedom after arriving on a ship in Philadelphia.

The new mural, Portal to Discovery, by the artist Tom Judd, was completed near the end of 2020 and was officially unveiled in January. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has not yet been an official opening ceremony, Judd said. The mural and its creation are also the subject of an exhibition, “History in Motion,” at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill through June 13.

The portraits of Black, white, and Indigenous leaders tell a more complete story of American history than is sometimes acknowledged, unspooling in the passageways of the SEPTA station where tourists from around the country and the world disembark on their way to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other historic sites.

“It will help them understand the comprehensive diversity and complexity of American history,” said Natalie Nixon, a member of the Philadelphia Art Commission who played a key role in the development of the SEPTA Art In Transit commission.

The mural is part of a massive, $20.4 million reconstruction of the station, completed last August, with new lighting, new passenger platforms, and more, and was the first major upgrade since a renovation in 1974 for the 1976 bicentennial.

Judd said the project taught him new dimensions of the city’s history. “It’s a rich history, and Philadelphia was a real player in the world for that time around antislavery movements,” he said.

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For all the diversity and inclusiveness in the finished mural, which covers 400 feet of subway wall space on either side of the tracks, it might have had another look if not for Nixon, who raised concerns about the project when it was first presented to the commission, asking the artist to rethink whether he had included enough of the African American point of view.

“It was like a blind spot, and as soon as she said it, I knew what she was talking about,” he said. He delved deeper in the city’s history and added about 10 historical figures the project had not originally included.

Among them is a formal portrait of James Forten, (1766 – 1842) a Black man who became a wealthy owner of a sail-making company and was a prominent abolitionist. There are also portraits of Native American leaders Teedyuscung, of the Lenape Nation, and Cornplanter (Gaiänt’wakê or Kaiiontwa’kon in the Seneca language), a Seneca war chief and diplomat who fought in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War.

Also here: Frances E.W. Harper, one of the first African American women to be published in the United States; Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel AME Church; and abolitionist William Still.

“Once I shifted my view, the mural ended up taking on a different context,” Judd said.

Nixon is a creativity strategist and president of Figure 8 Thinking. She holds a Ph.D. in design management from the University of Westminster in London. As part of the Art Commission, she said, it’s her responsibility to ask clarifying questions about major arts projects “as the city makes decisions about the role of the art and its impact on the city landscape.”

The nine-member commission, which vets art paid for with public money or destined for a public space, is required by the City Charter to represent a broad cross-section of artistic disciplines and civic leadership. Taller Puertorriqueño executive director Carmen Febo San Miguel and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commission chair Raed Nasser are among its members, along with prominent artists and architects. Alan Greenberger, who chairs the commission, was the recent head of the Department of Architecture, Design & Urbanism at Drexel University and is now vice president for real estate and facilities at Drexel.

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Nixon is the only Black woman on the commission and a lifelong Philadelphian. She said each reviewer brings his or her own special interests to the public art projects.

“I’m from Philadelphia, and I know the history of African Americans’ role in building the United States. I always want to make sure that that is included in design projects like this.”

She grew up in East Mount Airy and remembers school trips to the Betsy Ross House where the only people talked about with any significance in the nation’s history were white.

It’s noteworthy, she said, that the area south of the 5th and Market station had been a largely Black neighborhood early in the city’s history, in part because of the men who labored as stevedores on the waterfront and in the sail-making and textile industries — “Black Americans were very pivotal to that industry,” she said — along with the merchants and artisans who sold goods nearby in what is now Washington Square.

“History in Motion,” an exhibit of photographs from the “Portals to Discovery” mural, is on view through June 13, at the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave. Details at