As a city of neighborhoods, residents in certain parts of Center City might say they live in Society Hill, Washington Square West, Bella Vista, and so on. Today, not many would identify the area as the 7th Ward. But when it comes to the 19th century in Philadelphia, it refers to the neighborhood roughly encompassing Spruce to South Streets, from 7th Street to the Schuylkill River.
At that time, the 7th Ward was a predominately African American neighborhood and home to many important institutions and significant figures. Several names still resonate today: Octavius Catto, the early civil rights activist who was murdered for attempting to vote, William Still, who chronicled his Underground Railroad work in the book of the same name, W.E.B. Du Bois, whose 1899 publication The Philadelphia Negro was the first sociological study of urban Black life, and Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and Mother Bethel AME church.
Although many of the buildings associated with the Black history of the 7th Ward now only exist as historical markers, several still stand in an area that today is one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest and least diverse.
Mother Bethel is one of the neighborhood’s most significant, longest-lasting institutions, located on land that is the oldest in the United States that has been continuously owned by African Americans. In 1791, Richard Allen purchased land at 6th and Addison Streets, which, over time, has been the location of four church buildings for the congregation. The current church, with an array of stunning stained glass windows, was built in 1889. According to church archivist Margaret Jerrido, it was partly funded by the sale of their burial ground at 4th and Catharine Streets now covered over by Weccacoe Playground. Mother Bethel was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1964 and listed as contributing to the Society Hill Historic District in 1999. In 1972, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Several other historically Black churches remain in the area, including Waters Memorial AME Church at 609 South Clifton Street, Church of the Crucifixion at 807 Bainbridge Street which now serves a bilingual congregation, Wesley AME Zion Church at 1500 Lombard Street, founded in 1820, and St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church at 1200 Lombard Street.
The latter, considered the mother church for Black Catholics, was founded in 1889 with support from St. Katharine Drexel. It was added to the local register in 1984. The following year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed it as a parish church. Since then, a struggle has ensued between parishioners and the Archdiocese over its fate.
Most recently, the December 2022 decree to relegate the building, meaning it would no longer be considered a Roman Catholic church, was appealed to the Dicastery for the Clergy, a department of the Holy See that handles administrative and judicial matters, including ruling on church closures. It sent notification last week that the department will issue a ruling within a few months, according to Brody Hale, the attorney assisting parishioners involved in the appeal. He noted that whoever loses can appeal to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial body of the Vatican. “The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is showing itself to be tone deaf to the desires of its Catholics to preserve their history,” Hale said.
Besides the church buildings still standing, the 7th Ward was home to many other institutions significant to Philadelphia’s African American history. Most, like the schools and hospitals that served the neighborhood, are remembered primarily through historical markers.
An ambitious, multi-platform project aims to change that. Legacy Reclaimed: A tribute to Philadelphia’s historic 7th Ward is mounting art installations, providing curricula and walking tours, and hosting discussions to bring the people, institutions, and history of the neighborhood alive. “I didn’t know the depth and extent of all the organizations that started in the 7th Ward,” said Tayyib Smith, co-founder of Little Giant Creative, which has partnered with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Records and Mural Arts for the project. “I started thinking about how little people knew about the Black history of Philadelphia.”
A particularly compelling component of the project is the temporary art installation titled Reflecting Revenants. Archival images of everyday Black life in the 7th Ward during the 19th century have been culled from the rich repositories of several Philadelphia collections, such as the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Charles L. Blockson Collection at Temple University, The Library Company of Philadelphia. The images were then reproduced on banners and semi-transparent decals and installed on buildings throughout the neighborhood. James Leonard, commissioner of records for the City of Philadelphia, which includes the City Archives, one of the sources, expressed admiration for bringing historic photographs vividly to life.
The third project partner, Mural Arts, also offers imagery in the 7th Ward, albeit on a more permanent basis. In 2008, it created the mural Mapping Courage on the side of Engine Company No. 11 at 6th and South Streets, honoring both the first Black firefighter hired by Philadelphia at this station and W.E.B. Du Bois, who lived nearby while conducting research for his book The Philadelphia Negro. As part of Legacy Reclaimed, Mural Arts will install a mural on the side of a former home of William and Letitia Still at 625 South Delhi Street. “Our public art serves as a vehicle for representation, reclamation, and reconciliation,” said Executive Director Jane Golden.
Just as Mother Bethel was, and continues to be, an anchor in the 7th Ward, it is also the starting point for much of the Legacy Reclaimed project. Walking tours begin there and it is hosting another art installation for the project as well as monthly talks, docents will be on hand at its Richard Allen Museum, and Germantown’s Colored Girls Museum has installed a “sit-a-spell” welcome space, with books and artifacts about the 7th Ward.
Speaking at a preview for the project, State Senator Vincent Hughes commented, “Let’s use this as a jumping off point, setting the template for others to do the same in their communities. If the story is not told, it’s forgotten. It will be like it didn’t happen.”
To that point, Smith feels Legacy Reclaimed comes at an especially crucial time. “When I started planning this project several years ago,” he reflected, “I never imagined there would be a war on books and Black history, and fictitious narratives about slavery being good for Black people.”