June 18, 2008
Juneteenth Day is this Thursday, June 19. Started as a primarily African-American holiday in the South, Juneteenth Day commemorates the emancipation of slaves in Texas at the end of the Civil War on June 19, 1865. Because Texas was one of the last areas liberated by Union troops, the day essentially marks the de facto emancipation of all Confederate slaves. It is now an official holiday in twenty-six states, and is meant to be enjoyed by Americans of all backgrounds, as it marks the day that the nation as a whole became one step closer to becoming a truly free country.
In nineteenth-century Philadelphia, freed slaves fought for the emancipation of all slaves long before the Civil War. If you’re looking to celebrate Juneteenth Day here in Philly, aside from having the traditional barbeque feast, you may want to take this mini-tour of sites that marked the lives of the black Philadelphians who played pivotal roles in the long campaign to end slavery.
Start at the President’s House at the corner of Sixth and Market. A recent archaeological dig unearthed the foundations of the mansion that housed Presidents Washington and Adams during their terms. The dig revealed the underground passage that Washington’s slaves use between the main house and the outlying houses, reminding us of the ubiquitous presence of slavery in the literal foundations of our early government. But slaves did not just toil here, they also fled from here, as two of Washington’s slaves, a cook named Hercules and a maid named Oney, escaped from the Market Street home.
These escapes add a new layer of history to the house, marking it as the site of quiet revolutions against that most famous revolutionary. Oney and Hercules defied the most powerful man in the country when they ran. The thousands of early runaways are important historical actors”"their actions eventually inspired the creation of an organized runaway network by the 1830s, which we know as the Underground Railroad.
You’ll find a monument of another kind of revolution a few blocks south on Sixth Street: Mother Bethel A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal Church), near the corner of Sixth and Lombard.
The church had its roots, the Free African Society, a group of freed black Christians founded in 1787. Under the leadership of the Methodist Richard Allen, Philadelphia blacks left the white denominations that were increasingly dismissive of their black congregants, and founded their own church on this site in 1794. The Richard Allen Museum on the basement level of Mother Bethel tells the fascinating story of the founding of the church, and of Philadelphia’s black community, which was a vital link in the network of anti-slavery activists that helped to bring slavery to an end. Also be sure to check out the beautiful sanctuary on the second and third floors. Although currently undergoing exterior renovations, Mother Bethel is still welcoming visitors.
These Philadelphia stories remind us that the freedom celebrated on Juneteenth Day was not simply a gift given by Union soldiers. It also came thanks to the brave actions of people like Oney, Hercules, and Richard Allen, who took control of their own lives, their own churches, and their own history.