The neon-streaked National Constitution Center dazzled. The historic red-brick Independence Hall stirred.
It was rainy, and I was about to duck back into the house when tour guide Jacqueline Wiggins pointed to a scraggly bush in the corner of the yard.
"I think of those African people," she said quietly, "hiding behind that boxwood. Waiting to see if it was safe. Hoping it was the right house."
Philadelphia came alive for me at that moment. I'd driven out here to the cobblestones of Germantown Avenue thinking about bypassing the typical tourist itinerary -- all those grand colonial sites that spoke to the birth of our nation. I wanted to peek in on another moment in our history, when the Civil War loomed and Philadelphia was a hotbed of abolitionism.
This rough-hewn house on Germantown Avenue was a station of the Underground Railroad, a safe haven for slaves fleeing north. It's said that Harriet Tubman stopped here once. There's no solid proof of that, but without doubt, many exhausted fugitives took refuge in the cramped attic or the dank outbuilding.
Visitors can take a guided tour that includes a dramatic re-enactment at the Johnson House Historic Site. By all accounts, it's quite moving. But I found the quiet on that back porch deeply affecting as well.
Inside the Johnson House, there wasn't so much to see as there was atmosphere to absorb. The two-story home was built in 1768 by the Johnsons, a Quaker family that designed it to be solid but simple, as their faith demanded. Even the mantel is modest -- too narrow to hold so much as a candlestick. The floors and walls are rough, uneven plank.
Glass cases hold a few artifacts, including a slave collar filled with pebbles and hung with iron rings so whoever wore it would rattle and clank if he tried to run.
A beacon for fugitive slaves
You could easily spend an entire day in Germantown, wandering the streets that President George Washington retreated to in 1793, when yellow fever swept through the nation's capital in nearby Philadelphia. The narrow streets are lined with squat brick colonials and grand Victorian mansions; several are open for tours.
Pressed by a tight timetable, I reluctantly set off for my next stop: Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in the heart of historic Philadelphia.
The Rev. Richard Allen -- a slave who bought his freedom -- purchased the land for Mother Bethel in 1787. It's said to be the oldest black-owned parcel in the United States.
In Allen's day, the church building was a rustic blacksmith shop. It was also a beacon. Fugitive slaves knew they would find help here: Members of the congregation would feed and clothe them and point them to sanctuary. If they were lucky, they'd get to hear a sermon too; Allen's forceful eloquence always packed the house.
After Allen's death in 1831, the congregation raised funds for a new church building, completed in 1889. It's breathtaking. Light streams in from the enormous stained-glass windows and dances across dark mahogany pews. The sanctuary's colors are so warm and jeweled, you almost feel bathed in gold.
Downstairs, you can tour a small museum. One of the church's early hymnals is here, and Allen's original wooden pulpit. There's also a poster warning fugitives -- and those who sympathized with them -- that "three slave-hunters" from Boston were in town, looking for bounty. The poster described the trio in chilling detail: One, it was said, "has a big mouth . . . and a good deal of dirty bushy hair. . . . He looks like a pirate and knows how to be a stealer of men."
My next stop -- the African American Museum in Philadelphia -- was disappointing. The exhibits felt thin; I found little to hold my interest.
Instead, I hit the National Constitution Center, a $185-million museum that opened in 2003.
On the side streets of Philadelphia, freedom still rings
The back porch of a Quaker house and the open air of a park can transport you to another era just as powerfully as the more famous sites and museums.
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