Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures
Explore their Stories in the National Park System
Independence National Historical Park
Philadelphia has a rich, diverse history. Before Englishman William Penn founded the city in 1682, the Finns, the Dutch and the Swedes had previously colonized the area. All Europeans traded with the native peoples who resided in the Delaware River Valley. United by their common language and subjugation to the British Crown, the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh recognized one another’s cultural differences as well as their commonalities when they mingled here. Penn promoted his colony heavily in the Rhineland, today part of Germany. Germans became a significant component of Pennsylvania’s population. By 1776 when members of the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), Philadelphia had a bustling port second only in size to Liverpool. Trade, opportunities for land ownership, and Penn’s founding principle of religious toleration all attracted an exceptionally diverse society. Independence National Historical Park, enabled by Congress to commemorate the creation of the United States of America and the establishment of modern, democratic government, rests on a long tradition of cultural diversity. The park and its associated sites offer many opportunities to view the past through the lenses of ethnicity and race.
In demonstration of the religious tolerance granted by William Penn in his Charter of Privilege, Independence National Historical Park’s borders were drawn to align with historic churches of several denominations. Small buffers of park land abut Old St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s Catholic Churches, Christ Church (Protestant Episcopal), and St. George’s Methodist Church. The original cemetery of Mikveh Israel Synagogue and the Free Quaker Meeting House are within park boundaries. Independence preserves and interprets the home of Bishop William White, the first consecrated Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America and Chaplain of the Continental Congress. Close by is the restored home of the Quaker Todd family, whose lives were greatly changed by a yellow fever epidemic in 1793. White ordained Absalom Jones, the first rector of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. James Dexter held founding meetings for Jones’ church in his home. The site is now marked on North Fifth Street in the park.
Gloria Dei or Old Swedes Church is a National Historic Site that recalls the era of Swedish colonization. Consecrated in 1700 for a Lutheran congregation, by the mid-eighteenth century, Sweden ended its mission and an Episcopal congregation occupied it. Gloria Dei is included in this travel itinerary as a separate site. Click here for more information.
At Third and Pine Streets, the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial commemorates the temporary residence of the Polish hero who fought for American independence and for his own country’s freedom. Serfdom still flourished in Poland making Kosciuszko particularly sensitive to slavery in America. He wrote a will that provided opportunities for freed blacks. In Independence Hall, visitors can see the room where Pennsylvania’s colonial Assembly passed the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780 by which an enslaved woman’s child was born free but remained indentured for 28 years. The United States Constitution, framed in this same room in 1787, is a model for democratic governments throughout the world. However, the document excluded women from the franchise and perpetuated slavery, paving the way to America’s Civil War seventy-four years later and its long legacy of racism.
In Congress Hall, delegates ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791. Despite this achievement, Congress repeatedly denied petitions from Free African organizations to abolish slavery and end the trade in human chattel.
When the Federal Government located in Philadelphia in 1790 for ten years while the nation’s new, permanent capital was under construction, President Washington brought some of his slaves from Mount Vernon. Dwelling in the executive mansion on Market Street, those slaves moved freely throughout the city interacting with the growing free black community. They may have visited today’s Washington Square where enslaved and free blacks congregated at night. Washington hired entrepreneur Richard Allen, a founder of the Free African Society and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to sweep his residence’s chimneys. Several slaves accompanied the president’s family to their summer retreat (now part of Independence) in Germantown. Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act in the executive mansion in 1793 making it a federal crime to aid a slave’s escape and denying captured slaves legal defense or a jury trial. Despite this law, the anti-slavery movement flourished here. One of Washington’s slaves, Oney Judge, credited the free black community’s assistance in her escape to freedom from the house in 1796. The story of the contradiction between freedom and slavery is told in Independence’s newest exhibit, The President’s House, on the site of the executive mansion.
The Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery displays the largest single collection of life portraits of founders of American government, officers of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and leaders of the new Republic. The collection includes French, German, and Polish heroes such as Lafayette, von Steuben, and Pulaski who aided America’s cause. Mohawk war chief Joseph Brandt was a British captain during the Revolution, but later traded with the Americans. Delegations of native peoples often came to Philadelphia for diplomatic purposes.
A diverse society requires tolerance of ideas. Since the early 19th century, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell have become symbols of liberty, freedom, and human rights. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Nelson Mandela have voiced their convictions in front of these icons. Every week visitors observe people exercising their First Amendment rights by publicly advocating their causes. Visitors can witness democracy in action and remember that not only ethnic and racial diversity, but also a diversity of points-of-view make a strong society.