"Mapping Courage" mural by Willis "Nomo" Humphrey on the Philadelphia Fire Department's Engine 11 firehouse shows W.E.B. Du Bois conducting his survey of the 7th Ward, which would inform his pivotal book "The Philadelphia Negro." (South Street Headhouse District via Visit Philly)

Philadelphia’s 7th Ward was a thriving neighborhood that once stretched across a swath of Center City now better known as Rittenhouse and Society Hill. 

At one point home to the largest African American population of any northern city, the ward’s deep-rooted history has been lost over the years. A new public-private initiative called “Legacy Reclaimed: A 7th Ward Tribute” aims to revive that memory for a new generation.

Funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the project is a partnership between the Philadelphia City Archives, Little Giant Creative, and Mural Arts Philadelphia to honor the cultural contributions, religious institutions, and civic activism of the majority Black voting ward. 

Kicking off Friday with an open house tour, Legacy Reclaimed celebrates the city makers who helped shape and build the 7th Ward area by commemorating their memory in art, conversations, and education. The initiative engages Black artists and historians to create long-term public art installations throughout the Philadelphia area.

The goal of the project is not just to “unearth” history, but to “resurrect” it, according to organizers

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the 7th Ward area saw a significant influx of immigrants along with African American residents due to the Great Migration from the South. Many Black families moved to the ward to seek better economic opportunities and to escape the racial discrimination and segregation of the Jim Crow South. This demographic shift played a crucial role in shaping the character of the neighborhood. 

It was the home of activist educators like Octavius Catto and Fanny Jackson Coppin. It was the home of philanthropist Theodore Starr, the namesake of one of Philly’s first public playgrounds, and Nathan Mossell, founder of one of the first African American hospitals in Philadelphia.

It was the subject of study by W.E.B. Du Bois, who published his findings in “The Philadelphia Negro.”

It was the home of Richard Allen, a prominent minister and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had its beginnings in the 7th Ward at the St. George’s Methodist. As a religious leader, Allen played a pivotal role in providing spiritual guidance and pastoral care, and his legacy continues to inspire and shape the cultural identity of the broader African American community. 

As people moved through Philadelphia, demographics and administrative boundaries changed, and — through what is now considered coordinated disenfranchisement — the 7th Ward was broken up. 

Today, the neighborhood predominantly comprises middle-class white residents, with numerous historical markers scattered throughout the area serving as poignant reminders of the vibrant African American and immigrant communities that once thrived there. 

Legacy Reclaimed aims to provide context for the 7th Ward’s rich Black history and significant contributions from historically marginalized communities, presenting the message that an inclusive future can only be achieved by recounting the complete narrative of our past.

Artists Amelia Carter and Beth Naomi Lewis are presenting an installation called “Reflecting Revenants: Recalling Black Life in the 7th Ward.” Using large-scale prints of archival candid photos from the City Archives and Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Collection, and footage from History Making Productions, they visually merge the past with the present. 

Another Legacy Reclaimed installation asks for audience participation. By artist Li Sumpter at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard, “The Time Bandit of the 7th Ward” invites people to play games that tap into the tradition of tarot by spinning slot machines that tell stories from the past.

The project aims to inspire the public to recognize the experiences and struggles of marginalized communities, which in turn encourages empathy and respect for different perspectives.

“The 7th Ward has always been a tapestry of rich history,” said Tayyib Smith, cofounder of Little Giant Creative. “With Legacy Reclaimed, we are breathing life back into the stories of everyday Black Philadelphians who lived in this neighborhood through honoring the strength of the past while inspiring current change makers in our city.” 

A free open house tour from 12 to 3 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 10, will be followed by a series of salon events and artist talks over the next several months. The art installations will be up through February 2024.