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Walking tour: Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad in Philly. Two tours of antislavery sites

It's more than just Harriet Tubman: Philadelphia was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and in the fight against slavery. And you can learn this history by walking it.

Visitors take photos of the Richard Allen statue during a stop at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
Visitors take photos of the Richard Allen statue during a stop at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

If you know the story of Harriet Tubman, you know the road to freedom passed through Philadelphia, an important stop on the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and shelters for fugitives escaping to free states and Canada. And Philadelphia abolitionists, Black and white, were major figures in the movement.

You can learn this part of Philadelphia history by walking the city. It’s a good way to engage with Philly’s Black history in a way that’s also safe during the pandemic.

And we have audio tours to guide you through the stops. These tours includes an open-air auction block that inspired the U.S. abolitionist movement. You’ll see a church that hid fugitives in the basement, en route to freedom. You’ll visit the Johnson House, where Harriet Tubman may have met other abolitionists. And there’s a site that isn’t even on the city’s historic register, which was recently demolished.

Walk 1: Society Hill and Center City

Listen to this tour while you walk:

1. London Coffee House

📍2 S. Front St. (at Market)

After Thomas Paine witnessed people being sold here, he wrote an essay that helped spark the antislavery movement.

The old tavern was a gathering place where merchants, ship owners, and political leaders met to conduct business. Outside, enslaved Africans were sold on the auction block. The English essayist Thomas Paine (1737-1809) lived in the boarding house next door and could see the auctions from an upstairs window. In his 1775 essay “African Slavery in America,” he called it an “outrage against Humanity and Justice.” A month after the essay was published, the first antislavery society in America began in Philadelphia.

2. Anthony Benezet Home

📍325 Chestnut St. (now Buddakan restaurant)

Anthony Benezet fought for Black schools, and started the first abolitionist society in America.

Benezet (1713-1784) was a white Quaker teacher and abolitionist. Starting in 1750, Benezet taught night classes to Black boys in his home. He opened the first public school for girls (white girls from prominent families) and, around 1770, convinced the Quakers to open a school for Black students. In 1775, he started the “Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage,“ the first abolitionist society in America; after his death, Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush reorganized the group as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The building is no longer standing and is now the site of Buddakan restaurant.

3. Pennsylvania Hall

📍190 N. 6th St. (Current site of the American College of Physicians)

A mob, unhappy that Black and white men and women were meeting, burned the building to the ground.

This building, the first constructed specifically for abolitionist meetings, opened on a Monday in May 1838. The next day, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women began. The city asked that meetings be restricted to white women only (others didn’t like the idea of women speaking in public at all). The abolitionists refused. A mob broke into the building to interrupt the speakers and tossed rocks through windows from outside. A few days later, the building was burned to the ground. The site is now home to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

4. The President’s House

📍Sixth and Market Streets

While President George Washington worked to subvert Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act, at least one of his servants escaped to freedom in New Hampshire.

When Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, a mansion at Sixth and Market Streets served as the White House. George Washington kept nine people enslaved there. He used a loophole to avoid complying with Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, which said that any enslaved person who lived in the state for six months would be free. Washington rotated servants back and forth to his Mount Vernon estate before six months had passed. Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 here. But in 1796, one woman, Oney Judge, is believed to have reached out to abolitionists to escape.

5. Congo Square, now Washington Square

📍210 W. Washington Square

Before it was called Washington Square, this was a gathering place, and a burial place, for the Black community, both free and enslaved.

This park was originally called Southeast Square when William Penn designed the city. It was named after George Washington in 1825. But before that, it was known as Congo Square, because it was where Africans and Black Americans, both free and enslaved, gathered in their free time or on holidays. Congo Square was also a burial ground for the city’s black population. People would visit the graves of their family members and pour libations and leave food.

6. Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

📍419 S. Sixth St.

This church was a site on the Underground Railroad.

Bishop Richard Allen was born into slavery, and bought his freedom. Allen went on to found Mother Bethel in 1794; it’s on the oldest parcel of U.S. land continuously owned by Black Americans and the oldest AME church in the nation. The church became a site on the Underground Railroad, its basement serving as a hiding place for fugitives. Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and William Still all spoke here. (Another Black church whose members were active in the Underground Railroad was African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, which originally stood at Fifth Street near St. James. There is a marker at that site.)

7. James Forten House

📍336 Lombard St.

James Forten was a successful Black businessman who helped fund the antislavery movement.

Born free in Philadelphia, James Forten, (1766-1842) was a student at the school that Anthony Benezet started for Black children. After the Revolutionary War Forten apprenticed with sailmaker Robert Bridges and bought the company when Bridges retired. He was a wealthy entrepreneur and inventor, and helped finance the antislavery causes including The Liberator newspaper.

8. William Still House

📍625 S. Delhi St.

He was the “Father of The Underground Railroad,” and helped many escape slavery.

William Still (1821-1902) helped hundreds of people flee slavery. He was born free in Burlington County, N.J., to former slaves. In Philadelphia, he worked for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, hiding and assisting fugitives, including his older brother. His book, The Underground Railroad, is an important record of the time, and includes these words on Tubman: “in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-men, by making personal visits to Maryland among the slaves, she was without her equal.” (There’s another historic marker on the 200 block of South 12th Street, near a different house where he once lived.)

9. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper House

📍1006 Bainbridge St.

The mother of African American journalism lived here.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was an abolitionist, writer, and poet. She was born in Baltimore to free black parents. She published her first book of poems in 1845, and is known as the mother of African American journalism for her work writing for abolitionist newspapers. Her 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, about a mixed-race free woman sold into slavery, is still in print. Harper also toured with the Anti-Slavery Society, lecturing alongside Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lucretia Mott. Her 1854 poem, “Bury Me in a Free Land” includes these lines:
I ask no monument, proud and high, / To arrest the gaze of the passers-by; / All that my yearning spirit craves, / Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

10. Henry Minton House

📍204 S. 12th St.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass attended meetings here and it’s believed John Brown spent the night here on his way to his raid on Harpers Ferry.

Henry Minton was a caterer and a prominent leader in the free black community in Philadelphia. Minton hosted meetings of abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Still. Abolitionist John Brown is thought to have spent the night at Minton’s house on his way to his ill-fated raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, where he planned to steal arms to free enslaved Black people. Brown and others, captured in the raid, were later hanged for treason and murder. The raid is considered a pre-cursor to the Civil War. This site is slated for redevelopment after historians failed to convince the city to add it to the list of historical sites.

Walk 2: Northwest Philadelphia

Listen to this tour while you walk:

📍5501 Germantown Ave.

The museum holds items from slavery, such as chains and shackles.

Museum founder J. Justin Ragsdale began collecting items related to slavery more than 40 years ago. Now, he and his wife, Gwen Ragsdale, operate the museum at the Germantown Historical Society. This museum includes shackles, chains, coffles, branding irons, and other ironware used to punish and confine enslaved African Americans. The collection also includes examples of “Jim Crow“-era objects that were used to ridicule and demean African Americans and create racist attitudes toward Black people.

📍6306 Germantown Ave.

This place held abolitionist meetings attended by William Still and others. A third-floor attic space is believed to have been a hiding place for those fleeing slavery.

Five generations of the Johnson family, who were Quakers, lived here. In the 1850s, the family was active in the American Anti-Slavery Society and other abolitionist groups; this house was a station and meeting place for the Underground Railroad, and Harriet Tubman may have spent time here. The house was in the line of fire during the Battle of Germantown in 1777 and you can still see the marks left by musket balls. It is now a museum that is open to the public, devoted to the difference that everyday people can make to their communities.

📍6401 Germantown Ave.

This is one of the places where abolitionist Richard Allen and his family were owned as slaves.

Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel African Methodist Church, was born in 1760 into the slave-holding household of lawyer Benjamin Chew, who became attorney general and chief justice of the Supreme Court. Cliveden was his summer mansion. When Allen was 7 or 8, Chew sold his family to Stokley Sturgis, a farmer in Delaware, who sold Allen’s parents and siblings to enslavers farther South. Allen eventually bought his freedom, returned to Philadelphia and became a leader in the Methodist Church. Cliveden was also the focal point of the 1777 Battle of Germantown.

This article has been updated since it first published.

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