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Tour highlights African-American history

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by Lini Kadaba
Philadelphia Inquirer

As the historical tour of Philadelphia passed Independence Mall, guide Charlene Palmore-Lewis pointed out highlights:

The Liberty Bell is over there, she said, and the slave quarters of the nation’s first president is right at its doorstep – a fact uncovered during a dig that unearthed the foundation footings of the President’s House.

And when the bus full of tour operators, group leaders and travel writers later stopped at the Art Museum, Palmore-Lewis mentioned the Rocky statue, of course, but emphasized the fine, columned building and the key role that African American architect Julian Abele played in its design.

For 21/2 hours, the city’s rich, but often ignored, black history was showcased – one piece of a weekend-long program intended to market Philadelphia as a destination for African American tour groups.

“The African American niche is an untapped market,” said Kathleen Titus, director of tourism sales for the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, which hosted the 17 visitors, who hailed from as far as California.

The organization wants to go after the ethnic segment, which has the potential to bring in tens of millions of dollars to the city’s economy, in the same way it has pursued other niches, including gays and lesbians and the older women known as “Red Hat Ladies,” she said.

“Philadelphia has so much African American heritage,” Titus said.

With the memorial intended to commemorate the President’s House – and acknowledge the nine slaves who lived there – slated to open next year, the timing is ripe for an all-out sales pitch, she said.

The weekend, called the African American Familiarization Tour, began with a Friday visit to the legendary studios of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, then dinner at Warmdaddy’s, where Southern cooking and rhythm & blues were on the menu.

In addition to yesterday’s sightseeing tour, run by Philadelphia Historic African American Tours (PHAAT), the packed schedule included lunch at Reading Terminal Market, a tour of the Art Museum, and an evening show (The Color Purple) at the Academy of Music. Today’s itinerary offers a presentation on the African American Museum and tours of the National Constitution Center, Independence Hall and Liberty Bell.

Titus said the bureau spent about $15,000 on the weekend – an investment that she expected would show returns through travel stories targeted at African Americans and new bookings by tour, church and sorority groups.

“We’re trying to pull out and highlight what we have,” she said. “It’s a sell of Philadelphia as a destination.”

By yesterday morning, the pitch had won over Amelia B. Paige, a tour-group leader who lives outside Cleveland.

“It’s mind-boggling. There is so much history,” she said, as she examined the tomb of Richard Allen, inside the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church that he founded near Sixth and Lombard Streets. The site – the oldest parcel owned by blacks – was one of the PHAAT tour stops.

This was Paige’s first stay in Philadelphia, other than passing through many years ago, she said.

In the past, she said she would never have thought of bringing a tour group to the City of Brotherly Love. Now, she said, she would: “It’s exciting. It gives you a knot in your throat, all that people went through.”

Palmore-Lewis, CEO of PHAAT, started the business two years ago with her husband to “tell my story. . . . This type of tour is very scarce.”

As the bus traveled the city’s streets, she pointed out familiar and not-so-familiar spots, each with a story that helped to paint a picture of early African American life.

Some of her tales involved the horrific hardships slaves endured. She pointed out the location of the whipping post at Second and Market Streets and the slave auctions a block away. But many other yarns highlighted success stories.

“We had very influential blacks in Philadelphia,” she told her audience.

She mentioned James Forten, one of the wealthiest African Americans in the nation; William Still, the father of the Underground Railroad; and Robert Bogle, a renowned caterer who so impressed banker Nicholas Biddle that he wrote Ode to Bogle.

“It’s a story that needs to be told,” said freelance journalist Le Datta Grimes of Lexington, Ky., who is writing a travel story about Philadelphia and its African American heritage. “Our history has been hidden, and it needs to be unearthed.”


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