• Congress Voting Independence


    National Historical Park Pennsylvania

Consultation Leads to Reevaluation of Dexter Site

Photo of Archeologists recording the soil profile of an 18th century feature.

Archeologists record the soil profile of an 18th century feature.

NPS Photo

Once research revealed that James Dexter's house on Block 3 was the site of founding meeting of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, Independence NHP initiated consultation with representatives of St. Thomas Church. At this initial meeting, in October 2002, the church was informed that the James Dexter site had been identified as important in the founding of the church and that the site was slated for development. The NPS intention to preserve the archaeological site was communicated to the representatives of St. Thomas.

Subsequent to this first contact, INHP and the NCC held additional meetings . Consultation was expanded to include representatives of Mother Bethel A. M. E. Church, the Multicultural Affairs Congress of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the office of Philadelphia City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. All the consulting parties agreed that the history of James Dexter, the Free African Society and the founding of the St. Thomas Church is an important historical theme which should be told to visitors of the National Constitution Center and Block 3 of Independence NHP. In response to this consensus, the NCC agreed to develop an interpretive component that would tell this story. A series of panels would be added within the NCC building that would complement the display of archeological materials already planned for the Center, and an interpretive panel would be added on the grounds near the site of the Dexter home. Development of these interpretive elements was undertaken with the participation of the panel of community representatives.

There was, however, disagreement on the decision to preserve the James Dexter site without conducting an archeological excavation. Representatives of both churches repeatedly expressed the view that excavation of the site was warranted and even necessary. At various times during the meetings this position was supported by the other community representatives present. A forceful case was made that James Dexter represents a key figure who ties together various strands of the early struggle to fashion an independent free black community in Philadelphia. His involvement in the Free African Society and the independent black church movement, as well as his ties to the abolitionist Quaker community, placed him near the center of this struggle. Therefore, it was argued that excavation of the Dexter home site was essential in attempting to bring this hidden piece of the nation's history to the fore. Church representatives acknowledged that evidence of Dexter's occupation of the lot might not have survived later developments on the site, but that, given the importance of this neglected story, an effort should be made to explore the Dexter site.

The clear and forceful presentation of these views led the NCC and NPS to reconsider the decision not to excavate the James Dexter site. The NPS and the NCC always considered the Dexter site to be a significant site that warranted protection and preservation, even if that would require significant redesign of the bus drop-off. However, the NPS and NCC find the argument advanced by the representatives of the churches for excavation of the site persuasive and after reevaluation has concluded that archeological excavation of the site is warranted and necessary.

Evidence, discussed below, suggests that the Dexter site may have been severely compromised by nineteenth and twentieth century construction. However, if portions of the site survived these disturbances, then recovery of preserved archeological deposits has the potential to greatly enhance our understanding of the archaeological material already recovered during mitigation excavations conducted in the adjacent areas of the Center's basement and foundation footprint. Those excavations promise to reveal much about the emergence of Philadelphia's free black community. The addition of material from the Dexter home site could greatly extend the research potential of the artifacts already secured from elsewhere on the block. The position of the representatives of St. Thomas and Mother Bethel Churches is compelling: James Dexter stands at the nexus of the key threads that weave together the story of the emergence of an autonomous black community in Philadelphia. If the excavation of the Dexter site proves productive, the results obtained could prove central to an understanding of the full story that Block 3 has to tell.

In recognition of this potential, both the NPS and the NCC are now committed to excavation of the James Dexter site. The NCC is financing the excavations and analysis and the NPS is providing oversight and supervision for that effort.

Did You Know?

Drawing of Dolly Todd

Dolley Todd had to write a letter to the orphan court to keep her son when, her first husband John died of Yellow Fever in 1793. In 1794, she married Congressman James Madison.