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Philadelphia Owns Up to More of its History of Slavery


Thousands of tourists watched last summer as archaeologists, working in the shadow of Independence Hall, unearthed remnants of the home where George Washington lived with his wife and several slaves.

Now, the city’s best-known Colonial-era church is dramatically bringing to light how slaves worshipped alongside parishioners like Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross.

Historians have long known that slaves attended Christ Church and were baptized, married and buried there. But it has not been publicized much in Philadelphia, where all men were declared to be created equal.

“I think it’s the right time in our city’s history, it’s the right time in our nation’s history,” said Neil Ronk, a church historian and senior guide. “Maybe it can spark a discussion.”

Or continue one.

The city’s ties to slavery emerged in 2007 as an estimated 250,000 people witnessed the excavation of a slave passageway in the President’s House, where Washington lived while Philadelphia was the nation’s capital.

Then in March, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama gave a stirring speech on race relations at the National Constitution Center, just blocks from Independence Hall and the Christ Church burial ground.

The recent decision by church officials to spotlight the congregation’s slave past was spurred in part by the Episcopal Church’s 2006 Conference, which mandated “a full, faithful and informed” accounting of its history, Ronk said.

Founded in 1695, Christ Church was the first parish of the Church of England in Pennsylvania and the birthplace of the U.S. Episcopal Church. Tours are given daily, but special presentations on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons offer slavery-related narratives.

Actress Diane Johnson portrays “Sarah,” a fictional slave who puts a human face on the grim statistics: In 1760, Philadelphia’s population was 11,000; about 1,100 were black, and nearly 900 of them were slaves.

Johnson’s monologues, based on historical research, tell of her life as slave cook and maid for a merchant’s family.

“When I read the script, I fell in love with it,” said Johnson, who hopes the performances “will make people think, reflect and maybe change some of our archaic thoughts.”

Though the church has been aware of its slave congregants, it is still researching actual practices. For instance, Ronk said church officials are still trying to determine where slaves sat with their masters, or separate from the rest of the congregation.

Previous church tours have referred to slavery, notably mentioning parishioner Absalom Jones, a one-time slave who bought his freedom and became the first black priest of the Episcopal Church. Yet it was never a guiding theme until now.

“Sarah” appears in costume at both the church and the burial ground a few blocks away, discussing snippets of daily life, her family’s history, how she came to be owned by her master and the role of slaves during Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic.

Christ Church’s cemetery has always been a popular tourist attraction because it is where Franklin is buried. Slaves, slave traders and slave owners are interred there as well, said John Hopkins, burial ground coordinator.

The slaves are listed in the church’s burial register by first name only, along with their owners: Violet, slave of the widow Plumstead; Charles, belonged to Mr. Taylor; William, belonged to Jos. Rich; and an unnamed child slave.

Among the slave owners are Franklin, who had at least seven; Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence who owned one; and John Kearsley, one of the main financiers of Christ Church, who owned four.

“It hurts me to know that they did that, especially Franklin,” Hopkins said.

College student Diana Hill, 37, recently toured the church and burial ground with her African-American history class. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Hill said she had no idea of the city’s slave ties until seeing a TV story last year about the memorial planned for the site of the President’s House.

“That’s when I realized that I needed to take a class,” she said. “This is just … kind of astounding.”

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