Discovery of James Dexter Site
A comprehensive redevelopment of Independence Mall is currently underway. The changes underway are designed to improve visitor services and enrich interpretive and educational opportunities for the park's visitors. These new developments are being undertaken by the National Park Service in cooperation with a group of outside partners.
Four new buildings and redesigned landscaping are planned for the three blocks of the Mall. Currently, two of the planned buildings are under construction and one, the Independence Visitor Center, has been completed and is open to the public. On Block 3 the National Constitution Center [NCC] is currently under construction. This new building is the largest of the planned new construction on the Mall. When completed the facility will cover approximately two-thirds of the block and will house the exhibits and programs of the National Constitution Center. The NCC was established by Congress through the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 and is an independent nonprofit organization. The NCC's mission is to increase awareness and understanding of the US Constitution, its history, and its relevance in contemporary society.
Construction of the National Constitution Center has required extensive excavation on Block 3. The building construction involves deep foundations and a bi-level underground garage. Both prior to and during construction the National Park Service and the National Constitution Center have worked to minimize the extent to which development would effect possible archeological sites and deposits. However, given the extent and scale of the building, significant disturbance of archeological resources was unavoidable.
In order to mitigate the adverse effects this construction might have on significant archeological resources, the National Park Service worked with the National Constitution Center to conduct background studies of the block and to design and execute a program of excavation to recover and document a sample of the significant archeological deposits and features that stood in the path of construction. These excavations are described in more detail in the next section of this paper.
It was during the initial historical research conducted to support the archeological effort that James Dexter's name first emerged. The report that included this information was produced by the National Constitution Center in 1999. The study listed James Dexter as one of six free black heads of households living on Block 3 in 1795. No details were then known about Dexter's life or his particular importance, but the report did alert us to the fact that Dexter was a part of a significant African American presence on the block.
Historical research on the history and inhabitants of Block 3 continued as the archeology project unfolded. This work provided a wealth of information on those who lived and worked on this block in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and began to provide a much fuller picture of the development of this part of early Philadelphia. Many people contributed to this on-going research, but the effort was guided by Independence National Historical Park historian Anna Coxe Toogood. It was as a result of this work that James Dexter's significant role in the founding of St. Thomas Church first became apparent. Particularly significant was the demonstration that some of Dexter's activities on behalf of the church occurred in his home on Block 3. This critical fact was established through Toogood's combing of primary historical records that established Dexter's tenure on Block 3 for the years 1790-1798.