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At African American Museum, an exhibit with epic sweep

When the new permanent exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia officially opens Friday, museum and tourism officials say, it will mark a turning point.

At the African American Museum in Philadelphia, its chief, Ramona Riscoe Benson, amid part of the permanent show, “Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876.” (David M Warren / Staff)
At the African American Museum in Philadelphia, its chief, Ramona Riscoe Benson, amid part of the permanent show, “Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876.” (David M Warren / Staff)Read more

When the new permanent exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia officially opens Friday, museum and tourism officials say, it will mark a turning point.

For the first time, a Philadelphia museum will present a permanent exhibit narrating the black experience from the days when the enslaved were a commonplace in households around the city, through the African struggle to establish black institutions, and on to the fight to end slavery, and the years immediately following the Civil War.

Within this epic sweep, visitors will encounter individuals: Black Alice, an enslaved African who knew everyone from William Penn to George Washington; James Forten, sailmaker, gentleman, free African, abolitionist, and early supporter of the first black churches; Forten's son-in-law, abolitionist Robert Purvis; Octavius Catto, a 19th-century political activist assassinated by whites in 1871.

Their stories, and many more, are told in the new high-tech exhibit "Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876." Its opening date, June 19, is also known as Juneteenth - the anniversary of the day in 1865 when Union soldiers finally reached Galveston, Texas, with word that all the enslaved had been declared free by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years before.

"We are just glad to be able to tell a story of Philadelphia that is not well-known," said Romona Riscoe Benson, the museum's president and chief executive. "And it's appropriate that it is told here. People have been expecting us to give them the African American side of the Philadelphia story. People were looking for this story. We had to give it to them."

Museum board chairman Ernest E. Jones said, "The impact that 'Audacious Freedom' will have on AAMP and this community is unprecedented."

That impact could reach well beyond the museum, officials suggested.

Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corp., said the presentation of African American history in Philadelphia has long lacked a hub: "The experience really needs a headquarters from which you can go forth. AAMP with its new exhibition fits that role perfectly."

Levitz suggested that the museum, off Independence Mall at Seventh and Arch Streets, would provide a starting point for visitors, who could then head to the President's House memorial (to be completed in fall of 2010), Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, and other nearby locations. Even more-distant places, such as the Johnson House Underground Railroad site in Germantown, could benefit.

"There are conversations taking place right now about how to tie more of these places together," said Benson. "We're in conversation with Mother Bethel. The design team from the President's House has been here. There has been a presentation for the [National] Park Service. . . . We're probably in the best place to talk about how these different attractions and sites can work together and bring this history alive for everyone."

The museum has poured $4.5 million into preparing its interior for the new exhibition and for a more active future.

"Audacious Freedom" occupies two galleries. The first consists of an extensive narrative keyed to a kind of diorama of people, places, and documents. As historical points are made in the narration, portions of the diorama are illuminated, lending a sense of movement to the display.

In the second gallery, visitors are greeted by life-size flat-screen video images of important historical figures, which will be changed every few years. The current dozen figures include Black Alice, Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and A.M.E. Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner. The figures - captured on video by public broadcaster WHYY - speak directly to visitors and give a slightly disorienting sense of immediacy.

"It's not a video game," said exhibit designer Jerry Eisterhold of Eisterhold Associates, of Kansas City, Mo. "We created a painting that moves and tells the stories - a painting that's alive. In one room, there is the environment these people lived in, and in the other are the people themselves."

Along one wall in the gallery with the life-size videos, a mural unfolds, filled with puzzles and games to entice children. Still to come is a multistory mural from the Mural Arts Program. To make the museum itself more inviting, exterior renovations are planned that will expand available space and allow for a small gift shop.

The city has provided $3 million. Peco gave $500,000, and the Lomax Family Foundation added $200,000, among other donors.

A team of historians, including Gary Nash of UCLA and Spencer Crew, former head of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and now professor of history at George Mason University, worked to assemble the elements of the narrative.

"The goal was to provide a view of early Philadelphia's African American community - what kind of role they played, and to show it was an active role from the earliest beginnings," Crew said. "One of the reasons it doesn't get easily into the mainstream is that it's hard to get it. It's not on the surface. You have to dig."

An important subtext of the exhibition is its sense of generational continuity, one generation building on another, decade after decade. Sometimes, those builders are related. James Forten, for instance, a founder of St. Thomas Church and an early free black abolitionist, was the father-in-law of Robert Purvis, who headed the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and the Vigilance Committee.

Tanner, of the A.M.E. church, edited the Christian Recorder and the A.M.E. Church Review. His son Henry Ossawa Tanner, a student of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, became one of the nation's great painters. But the family history didn't stop there.

Author and educator Rae Alexander-Minter, who grew up in Philadelphia, counts Tanner as her grand-uncle. Her father was one of the first African American graduates of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an early black graduate of Harvard Law School. Her mother was the first African American woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in economics and the first in Pennsylvania to pass the bar and practice.

"There was a sense of giving back that my family instilled in my sister and me," Alexander-Minter said in an interview. "It's a sense of giving back and contributing to the community that gave us so much."

Tanya Hall, executive director of the Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau's Multicultural Affairs Congress, said the new exhibition illustrated that sense of continuous engagement and commitment. She said she believed the museum had come up with the right thing at the right time for the city.

"We have needed a new focal point, a center of attention for black history in Philadelphia, for a long time," Hall said. "Philadelphia has an abundance of black history, but to have something right in the heart of the city that has all the bells and whistles is new. The museum has been part of the fabric, but it is now positioned to be a cornerstone for the presentation of black history in Philadelphia."

If You Go

The African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Adults (over 12): $10. Youth, students (with I.D.), and seniors: $8.


215-574-0380 or


Coming Friday

On the day "Audacious Freedom" opens, The Inquirer's Weekend section brings the African American Museum exhibit to life.