From their inception, Philadelphia’s civic celebrations were invested with political messages and social values that, as the city’s population grew more diverse, often betrayed the politics of inclusion and exclusion in the City of Brotherly Love. As celebrations increasingly became city-wide endeavors, they served as a means to build communities, both real and imagined, and define civic identity based upon who was invited to participate and in what fashion. More often than not, African-Americans found themselves excluded from civic celebrations, beginning with the earliest Independence Day festivities and continuing into the 20th century. While individuals like prominent black sail maker James Forten criticized efforts to drive free African-Americans away from festivities at Independence Hall in 1813, public commemoration only grew more segregated along racial lines over time. In response, African-Americans largely resolved to celebrate their history and achievements in their own manner, though these efforts often did little to resolve both the political and racial conflicts underlying Philadelphia’s public observances.
By and large, the most significant African-American civic celebration in Philadelphia was the 1913 Emancipation Exposition, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. After Congressional support for a national exposition fell through, activists in Philadelphia received $95,000 in state funding for an exposition at the site of today’s Marconi Plaza at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue. Despite strong criticism from the white community and bureaucratic maneuvers over building permits, African-Americans organized an exposition site that included an Agricultural Hall, an Administration Building featuring an auditorium, dining room, and exhibit space, and an Amusement Building with concert and lecture halls. Crucially, the area in which African-Americans were permitted to stage the exposition was an Italian neighborhood to which they had no historical or contemporary connection and was also the southern-most limit of the city’s residential and commercial development at the time. Nonetheless, 5,000 visitors attended the Exposition’s opening Congress and other festivities throughout its run included an athletics festival and lectures about African-American progress and achievements. The Exposition also included a parade down Girard Avenue that drew an estimated crowd of 25,000 to 50,000 spectators.
The buildings at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue were subsequently demolished after the Exposition, which was largely forgotten and overshadowed by the Sesquicentennial festivities on the same site in 1926. However, inspired by the Exposition’s efforts to memorialize Emancipation as part of the legacy of the Civil War, Richard R. Wright Sr. created National Freedom Day in the 1940s to mark the day that President Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery into law.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the racial politics of civic celebrations were further exemplified by the Bicentennial festivities and the redevelopment projects that accompanied them. As far back as the 1950s, city officials conceived of the Bicentennial as Philadelphia’s emergence as a viable commercial center and tourist attraction as the city transitioned from its industrial past to a post-industrial future. Hoping to stem the tide of manufacturing losses and the middle-class exodus to the suburbs, reformist Democrats like Richardson Dilworth developed plans for a new transportation infrastructure, including the construction of the Vine Street and Crosstown expressways, multi-level parking garages, pedestrian walkways, and a downtown shopping plaza that would make Philadelphia the nerve center of the region. On the whole, these redevelopment plans favored the city’s central business district and largely neglected neighborhood housing, save for the revitalization of Society Hill. Benefiting from its close proximity to Independence Hall, which was undergoing its own redevelopment with the demolition of areas north of the site to make way for Independence Mall, Society Hill was aesthetically transformed into a historically rich environment of luxury apartments and green spaces. Under the direction of planner Edmund Bacon, other redevelopment projects included the revitalization of spaces along the Delaware River, Walnut and Market Streets, and the area between City Hall and the Ben Franklin Parkway, all culturally rich and historic areas through which Philadelphia would be defined.
To critics, redevelopment favored the white middle-class at the expense of African-Americans and other minorities, many of whom were forced out of neighborhoods like Society Hill either by demolition or rising housing costs. To activists like Milton Street, the Bicentennial celebrations, which would be staged in the revitalized Center City district, embodied these injustices and provided a focal point for protest. While Bicentennial planners envisioned a combined international exposition and patriotic spectacle that showcased the downtown area, Street organized a counter-Bicentennial called “People’s ‘76” that would take place in city neighborhoods and emphasize popular participation in the Revolution. Ultimately, neither side’s plans were fully executed, as the idea for an international exposition was scrapped for lack of a feasible site and “People’s ‘76” faltered due to lack of funding and participation. By default, the theme of the city Bicentennial was family entertainment, with a July 4th parade featuring high school bands and cheerleaders and a 50,000 pound, five-story birthday cake at Memorial Hall baked by the Sara Lee Company. For their part, “People’s ‘76” did stage a competing parade on July 4th, which included African-Americans, Native Americans and Puerto Rican nationalists among others and ran through North Philadelphia to highlight its blighted manufacturing and residential districts.
Ultimately, the Bicentennial concentrated and intensified opposition to the city’s redevelopment projects and protests continued in the coming decades under the leadership of Milton Street. From the early days of the new nation to the 20th century, Philadelphia’s civic celebrations were invested with political and social significance that extended far beyond the day’s events and offer fascinating portraits of Philadelphia throughout its history.
Andrew Feffer, “Show Down in Center City: Staging Redevelopment and Citizenship in Bicentennial Philadelphia, 1974-1977,” Journal of Urban History, vol. 30, no. 6 (September 2004): 791-825.
Charlene Mires, “Race, Place, and the Pennsylvania Emancipation Exposition of 1913,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 128, no. 3 (July 2004): 257-278.
Gary B. Nash, First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
Edwin Wolf, Philadelphia: Portrait of an American City (Philadelphia, PA: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1990).