A Challenge for Philadelphia: What Should Our 9/11 Memorial Look Like?

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Public memory fails us at Second Street, Walnut to Chestnut Streets.
Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess, August 13, 1936.

America has another 9/11. September 11, 1777 also resonated with pain and sadness and was long remembered as a failure of freedom at the heart of the American cause. On that day, 234 years ago, a would-be nation embracing a vision of democracy forgot what the fight was all about.

But this story is remembered nowhere on the streets of Philadelphia. There’s no monument, no sculpture, no mural, no words in bronze to help us know and remember. This original, American 9/11 is now all but forgotten. It’s as if that day never happened.

Lucky for history, lucky for us, libraries and archives hold documents that tell the tale. The papers of Henry Drinker at Haverford College and the Brown Family at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and others that augment them are preserved and accessible. And thanks to Google books, a 300-page account of the event originally published in the 19th-century is also available. From these documents, as well as a more recent article, we can know and share what took place in Philadelphia on September 11, 1777.

What happened? Quaker Philadelphia became wartime Philadelphia. With the British advancing on land and by sea to occupy the city, loyalty and trust were no longer measured in shades of gray. By late August, Congress ordered those who were “notoriously disaffected…be apprehended disarmed and secured.” There was no ambiguity when it came to Philadelphia’s Tories. But what about the Quakers, who would neither participate nor contribute to the revolutionary effort?

Wartime leaders tended to agree with John Adams, who believed Philadelphia Quakers “love Money and Land better than Liberty of Religion.” Then reports of treasonous Quaker documents appeared – never mind that they were fabricated. Congress immediately recommended the arrest of Quakers who “evidenced a disposition inimical to the cause of America.” In early September, American forces began to “seize and secure” some of the city’s most upstanding citizens, nearly all of whom were Quakers. Without charges, and with nothing more than a list of targets and orders from Congress, armed guards broke into civilian homes and rounded up 41 men. When elderly John Pemberton refused to go “they removed him bodily from the house and took him forcibly into custody.” He and others pleaded their “affection for America,” but to no avail. All the prisoners were taken to the Masonic Lodge on Lodge Alley just west of Second Street, north of Walnut Street.

There would be no charges, no hearings, no appeals. The prisoners, their families and others protested these actions as a “stretch of arbitrary power,” “illegal,” “unjust,” and “contrary to the Rights of Mankind.” All complaints fell on deaf ears. A guard threatened to shoot a visitor attempting to talk to a prisoner through a window. Day by day, tensions grew in the streets around Lodge Alley.

A few men suffering illnesses were released. Others were let go after signing an oath swearing allegiance to the Revolution. The rest remained locked up.

On September 11, the twenty remaining men were loaded onto wagons in the midst of a crowd one witness called a “deeply emotional.” Passions rose. Someone threatened a guard, promising to “thrust his hands down his throat and pull out his heart if he dared abuse a Prisoner.” Another witness wept as the loaded wagons sat for hours, attempting to wait out the crowd. When the citizen-prisoners finally trundled away in the early evening, African-American acquaintances of John Pemberton managed to grasp his outreached hand. By then, Philadelphians just lined the way in silent protest.

These citizen-prisoners, victims of this original 9/11, were held for more than six months, out of sight but hardly out of mind in Winchester, Virginia. Two, Thomas Gilpin and John Hunt, died there. After many protests and appeals the rest were returned and released in April 1778. No charges were ever filed.

Today, the Masonic Lodge is long gone. So is Lodge Alley. This episode is forgotten. Over time, the place lost its connection with memory.

Should the site of Philadelphia’s 9/11, the site of “one of the gravest violations of individual rights…during the War of Independence” NOT be marked? Of course it should.

The real question is, what should Philadelphia’s 9/11 memorial look like; what should it tell us? How best can we restore this lost episode to living public memory?