Memorial Day in Philadelphia: Have fun, and remember reverently

The exhibit "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello" at the National Constitution Center features a bronze of Jefferson with a backdrop of the names of his slaves; and, above, an 1845 photo of slave Isaac (Granger) Jefferson and a page from a farm book listing slaves.
The exhibit "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello" at the National Constitution Center features a bronze of Jefferson with a backdrop of the names of his slaves; and, above, an 1845 photo of slave Isaac (Granger) Jefferson and a page from a farm book listing slaves. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 24, 2014

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kick-off to summer. The school year is winding down, warm and dry weather is in the forecast, and weekend pilgrimages to the Shore begin.

But lest anyone forget, this holiday is meant to honor America's war veterans. It has special significance in Philadelphia, where the Constitution those men and women defended was crafted and signed.

So take time out to remember our soldiers and their sacrifices this weekend by sending a veteran a thank-you postcard at the National Constitution Center. Watch your children answer the call to arms during one of Historic Philadelphia's "Military Muster" events. Enjoy a concert at Penn's Landing with the Delaware River as a backdrop and remember the role the waterway played in U.S. history.

"People who live here forget about what a big deal the city is in our national sphere and in American history, but this is where it all happened," said Kerry Sautner, the Constitution Center's vice president of visitor experience. "This is where it started and this is where it's continuing."

The center's newest exhibit, "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello," looks at founding father Thomas Jefferson, who wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence yet was a lifelong slave holder. Some scholars have noted that a full understanding of the nation's founding isn't complete without a study of Jefferson and slavery.

"How do you remember the past?" Sautner asked. "Our goal at the museum is to talk about 'We the People.' "

Memorial Day weekend is the kick-off for many of Historic Philadelphia's events, said Amy Needle, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit that oversees four sites, including the Betsy Ross House and Franklin Square. Its 10 "Once Upon a Nation" benches, which invite listeners to rest their feet and hear a trained storyteller share a historic tale, remain popular, she said. The "military muster," which takes place Fridays and Saturdays at 2 and 3 p.m., invites children to join the Continental Army, outfitting them accordingly and then teaching them musket-handling and marching drills.

"It's a total Kodak moment - do people say that anymore?" Needle asked. "At least it's a cellphone moment."

Another new program focused on children, "Colonial for a Day," rents pint-sized colonial-era attire and provides kids with an adventure map to help them uncover the secrets of historic Philadelphia. Such programming is already popular at other history-rich sites, like Colonial Williamsburg, Needle said.

"We know that visitors are coming to Philadelphia to experience the history, and we have such a gift of history," she said. "The costume program allows out-of-towners to immerse themselves in the experience."

To that end, Historic Philadelphia this week also launched the first round of its weekly adult favorite, the Tippler's Tour, which takes place every Thursday evening. Through early July, it's Ben's Kites & Flights, with founding father Franklin sharing insights with visitors at four colonial and modern-day watering holes. He sends them off with a book of different ways to say "intoxicated," compiled by the man himself. ("Nimptopsical" and "tipsicum grave" are two favorites.)

And that's OK, because while the weekend's focus should be veterans, it's also important to have fun. After all, the brave fighting men and women went to war to preserve the American way of life.

"Philly does Memorial Day just right, focusing on both 'Memorial' and 'Day (off),' " said Cara Schneider, director of media relations for Visit Philadelphia, the region's official marketing association. "Some events remind us of Philadelphia's place in wars past, most notably the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. But this is also the start of the summer travel season, and it's A-OK to have fun spending time off with family, too."

She recommends that visitors explore beyond the city's historic core, perhaps traveling a few miles north to Laurel Hill Cemetery, which will feature a parade and rededication of its Silent Sentry Civil War statue on Sunday. Or visit Chestnut Hill's Morris Arboretum, which starts running its Summer Garden Railway Saturday.

With so many activities offered, it's easy to see why Sautner is so enthusiastic about the next few months in Philadelphia.

"I love summer here," she said. "It's so much fun."


National Constitution Center has a full Memorial Day weekend of programs, including a flag etiquette workshop and a lesson in flag folding, a patriotic karaoke party, and craft-making stations.

Historic Philadelphia offers many free programs, including the "military muster" and the 10 "Once Upon a Nation" benches where costumed, trained storytellers regale visitors with tales of the past. There's also the "Colonial for a Day" rental dress-up program for kids.

Laurel Hill Cemetery will hold a parade and rededication ceremony Sunday for the Silent Sentry statue.

Morris Arboretum's popular Summer Garden Railway starts chugging on Saturday.

In Coming Weeks

June 14 Stripes and Stars Festival. Celebrate the shared birthday of the American flag and the U.S. Army with events throughout Philadelphia's historic district. Highlights will include performances by the U.S. Army Silent Drill Team and the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, discounted entry to the Constitution Center, and the chance to see new citizens sworn in at Betsy Ross House. Full schedule at

June 28 through July 4 The weeklong Wawa Welcome America! Festival features neighborhood events, Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, fun, food, fireworks, a parade, the Party on the Parkway, and the "largest free concert in America," with the Roots.

Through September Penn's Landing, with Peco support, hosts multicultural festivals each weekend. The Irish start the fun on June 1 and the festivities continue until the Brazilians close out the season in late September.

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