PHILADELPHIA MAY BE the "Cradle of Liberty," but it was a different story in pre-Colonial times, when the city was inhabited by slaves, their masters, and organizations that supported both.
Organizations such as historic Christ Church in Philadelphia, an Episcopal church founded in 1695. Although the church didn't ban slave owners from worshipping, it did assist in the abolitionist movement, including the Underground Railroad.
"It's an important, untold story; Christ Church has many of the components [of the slave era]," said Christ Church Preservation Trust Executive Director Donald U. Smith. "We had people that were enslaved coming to Christ Church, and we had slave owners come to the church. It's very important to tell the truth of the way our history was and how our history developed.
"We were able to unearth a lot of information on education programs [the church provided slaves] of that time and the roles Christ Church played in that era."
To share the knowledge they amassed, the Old City church will host a summer-long series of dramatic re-enactments of slavery issues. And this week the church and the Daily News will host a public forum, "Conversations on Slavery in Philadelphia: A Discussion of Our Real History."
The discussion tomorrow evening takes place at the church, 2nd Street above Market. The evening begins with a short, dramatic presentation followed by a conversation moderated by Daily News editor Michael Days and the Christ Church in Philadelphia Parish Associate Rev. Palmer Hurtl.
"Prior to the Revolution, in 1760, Philadelphia's population was 10 percent African-American, and of those 10 percent, 80 percent were enslaved," Smith said. "We realized that people didn't have a sense of that reality, and believed that slavery only existed on the plantations in the South."
Christ Church, visited by an estimated 250,000 tourists and area residents annually, chooses a theme each year and then offers dramas and other events surrounding it. This year's tourism theme is slavery, and aside from having the community conversation this week, the church will offer the twice-weeklydramas.
"The dramatic presentation runs for about 25 minutes, and includes two people," Smith said. "One is a slave in 1760, and the other is the narrator or guide who tells [the slave's] story, giving it some context."
"We tell our stories through a character named Sarah, whose life is woven from the real accounts of slaves who worshipped at Christ Church," said the Rev. Timothy Safford, Christ Church rector. "Our presentation gives voice to the slaves who came to rely on Christ Church for baptisms, weddings and funerals, and attended one of the first schools for enslaved Philadelphians."
The drama tells the story of a slave named Black Alice who collected tolls on the Dunks Ferry Bridge and died at the age of 116; of the Isabella, the first slave ship to dock in Philadelphia; and of William Sturgeon, the first "Catechist to the Negroes" of Christ Church.
"Today it is given that slavery is wrong," said Smith. "Our drama challenges the audiences to consider what they would have done if they lived 250 years ago." The drama suggests provocative questions: Would you have followed the accepted practice of the day? Would you have been among the few who stood up and spoke against it? Would you have fought for your freedom? Would you have tolerated bondage for the sake of your family and friends?
Smith said that this year's theme was chosen because of Christ Church's unique activity during the slave era and because of the interest in the subject created by last summer's archaeological dig at the Slave House across from the Liberty Bell Visitor Center. The excavation of George Washington's Presidential home revealed these slave quarters, and prompted interest in how many Founding Fathers owned slaves.