Here’s the thing about Philadelphia history. Too often, everyone pretends that it began and ended in 1776. Look, kids, here’s a building where some old guys in wigs signed a thing. Cheesesteaks, anyone?
The fact is, Philly’s history — the whole of it, from when Billy Penn disembarked on our shores to when Gritty emerged from the bowels of our storied sports arena — is so much richer, and more relevant, than we often recognize.
Other cities have an easier time with their histories. Every era of New York, no matter how obscure, has been romanticized in some fashion on screen and in print, while we have to be content with 1776, the single musical on the lives of the Founding Fathers that bothers to more than barely mention us, and the grimy 1980s-era Philadelphia in Trading Places. At least Mannequin made Wanamakers look fun.
But I digress.
My point is, a lot gets left out.
Which is why the nitpicky history geek in me was so excited to listen to the first episode of Lori Aument’s new podcast, Found in Philadelphia, which aims to fill the gaps in the popular conversation around Philadelphia history.
Aument applied for a grant to launch the podcast after years of listening to programs like The Bowery Boys — a favorite of mine that’s all about, yes, old New York — and Uncivil, which reexamines the cultural narrative around the Civil War and its aftermath.
She wanted to hear a podcast about Philly stories like that.
“I started thinking, ‘If this is something I want to hear, maybe I need to do it.’ Because no one else seems to be doing it,” said Aument, a longtime building conservator.
She’s right. In the ever-expanding podcast realm, there are about a million Philly sports podcasts, a few quirky programs on our city’s charms, and Twisted Philly, which incorporates compelling history as it serves up an exhaustive catalogof our city’s more haunted addresses. But there’s not much more dedicated to the nuance of Philadelphia history and how it shapes us today.
History "is not just weird and interesting,” Aument said. “It informs the shape of our neighborhoods, the demographics, the look of them, the holes in our fabric. It’s really relevant to people’s everyday experiences.”
The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the library and antiquities museum on Washington Square, is funding the podcast, and Aument produces the pod with Drexel University.
The first episode dropped last month. And talk about nuance: Aument wastes no time exploding part of our city’s cherished mythos — that of the benevolent William Penn, our Quaker founder.
He and his buddies owned slaves, she reminds us. And, along with some of the most prominent families in early Philadelphia — the Dickinsons, the Logans, the Norrises, whose names grace our streets and neighborhoods — he shipped them back and forth from plantations in Barbados.
But, in true Philly fashion, Aument says, there were always those who pushed back for what was right.
In this case, a bunch of radical Quakers from Germantown who made their 17th-century neighborhood a hotbed of resistance to slavery and authored the country’s first document decrying racism.
“Doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves,” the Germantown Protest of 1688 read. Awkward to our ears, but powerful.
But the power of the podcast is that it doesn’t stay in olden times. Aument focuses half the episode on interviews with today’s Germantown residents, and how the fight against racism still defines the neighborhood. The area has faced school closings, and poverty, and, more recently, gentrification — but the unity of the neighborhood and resilience of the black community is a direct line to those funny-talking Quakers of yore.
“It was better and worse than you ever thought, right from the beginning,” Aument says. “I think we do people a disservice thinking they want the simplified, easily digested story.”
It makes for good listening.
Future episodes will deal with the women who led the 19th-century battle to desegregate Philly’s trolley cars, our pioneering female medical students, and our long history with prison reform. Sounds relevant.
So how will Aument rouse others beside history geeks like me?
“It’s about just falling back on really compelling stories that grab people and surprise people,” she said.
And, despite some appearances, we’ve got plenty of those to tell.