Touring Black History Today, A Retired Teacher Launches A New Lesson Plan, With A Walk That Salutes The City's Black Founding Fathers

Posted: February 13, 1988

As a resident of Old City, Marion Douyon has eavesdropped on many a tour guide herding tourists through Philadelphia's historic district. And she has especially listened to the cast of Revolutionary-era characters summoned up to fire the imagination of the groups - Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Lafayette.

"They were all great men," she said. "All of them were heroes, all were historically significant and all were white."

Marion Douyon and her husband, Yovanne Douyon, say they never heard a single mention of black Philadelphians of the 18th century during the tours. As a retired high school teacher with a master's degree in history, Marion Douyon decided something should be done.

Thus was born Black History Strolls & Tours of Philadelphia. The first tour - Douyon hopes it will be the first of many - is called "Salute to the Black Founding Fathers - 18th-Century Philadelphia."

The two-hour tour begins today at noon at the 200-year-old Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets and makes eight more stops, ending at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Front and Spruce.

She is charging $2.50 for the tour, to recover some of the money she spent on advertising and publicity.

"Putting together the tour required a lot of work, but I just felt compelled to do it," she said. "The extraordinary role of blacks in the Revolutionary era needs to be made more widely known."

The Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church was founded in 1787 after Bishop Richard Allen and Father Absalom Jones led a group of 30 to 40 black worshipers out of St. George's Episcopal Church, Fourth and Race Streets, to protest discrimination.

Bishop Allen had been born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760. He and his family were owned by a prominent lawyer and one-time chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Benjamin Chew. Chew later sold them to a Dover, Del., man. Eventually, Allen bought freedom for himself and his brother with $2,000 he earned working in his spare time.

He returned to Philadelphia at the age of 25, and began preaching at a 5 a.m. service each Sunday at St. George's. As the black congregation grew, white members of the church became increasingly restive. Finally, when an attempt was made to impose segregation within the church, Bishop Allen and Father Absalom Jones led the walkout.

After visiting Mother Bethel, Douyon will lead the tour to Washington Square and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution.

"There were 5,000 black soldiers who fought the British in that war," she said, "and some of them were buried right there at Washington Square."

Yovanne Douyon, who will accompany his wife on the tour, points out that 500 of the 5,000 black soldiers were Haitians. He was a colonel in the Haitian army before he retired 15 years ago. He came to Philadelphia and got a job teaching French in the public schools, where he met his wife.

After Washington Square, the tour heads for Fifth and St. James Streets, the original site of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The church, which is now located at 52d and Parrish Streets, was founded by Absalom Jones, who became an Episcopal priest after the walkout at St. George's.

"Absalom Jones was the first black priest in the Episcopal Church," Marion Douyon said.

Here, she will also discuss the life of James Durham, a black physician and aide to the famous Philadelphian Dr. Benjamin Rush. Durham, along with Bishop Allen and Father Jones, performed heroically in attending to the sick during the great (1793) yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, she said.

The tour goes next to Fifth and Spruce Streets and the site of the home of Bishop Allen. It will then visit St. Peter's Episcopal Church on Pine Street between Third and Fourth. It was here that Durham and other Philadelphia blacks were baptized during the period. Nearby, on Third Street, is the site of Father Jones' home. The original homes of Allen and Jones have long since been razed.

The tour goes next to the Thaddeus Kosciusko house and museum at Third and Pine Streets.

"Here, I intend to speak about the lives of three black men who served as aides to three generals during the Revolutionary War," Marion Douyon said. ''Agrippa Hull was aide to Gen. Kosciusko, the Polish hero of the war; James Armistead was aide to Gen. Lafayette, the French general, and William Lee was aide to Gen. George Washington."

The tour then heads down Pine Street to Head House Square, where an outdoor market thrived in the 18th century.

"It was here that many Philadelphia blacks were vendors," Douyon said. ''They did everything from selling corn to offering to whitewash your house."

At the foot of Pine Street is the site of the sailmaking enterprise of one of Philadelphia's wealthiest citizens of the 18th century, James Forten.

"He left a bequest of $100,000, an enormous amount of money for the time, to assist blacks seeking to escape slavery," she said.

Finally, the tour will come to an end at Front and Spruce Streets at the

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where Douyon will point out that the first Philadelphian to die in Vietnam was a 17-year-old black, James "Skip" Thornton.

If there is sufficient interest, Douyon said, she may give the tour on a regular basis.

"I'm also considering having a videotape made and, perhaps, an audio tape that people could rent to make the tour on their own. It's enormously important that this fascinating aspect of the history of our city not be ignored."

comments powered by Disqus