Located along the southern edge of modern Center City, Philadelphia’s historic 7th Ward played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century.
For one, it was the area studied by W.E.B. Du Bois for his 1899 book “The Philadelphia Negro,” which is considered one of the first sociology studies to use statistics in making its case. Commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, the book debunked the idea that Black Americans were somehow prone to social ills.
The 7th Ward was not just the largest community of African American residents in any northern city, Du Bois’s work showed the world, it was a hub for cultural and political activities. The area was home to several institutions and prominent figures who contributed to the social and political progress of the nation at large.
Though its boundaries have been buried by time and disenfranchisement, the 7th Ward remains an essential part of Philadelphia and U.S. history. Its story is being revived by “Legacy Reclaimed,” a public art initiative in the neighborhood that runs now through February.
Here are 10 notable places that played a part in that history.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School
1512 Lombard St.
Nathan F. Mossell was the first African American physician to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. In 1895, he established the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and School for Nurses on Lombard Street just west of Broad. In 1909, the hospital relocated to 1534 Lombard St. and expanded from 15 to 75 beds.
In addition to offering cost-effective and readily available healthcare for African American patients, the hospital also played an important role as a facility where Black physicians and nurses could undertake internships and acquire hands-on experience — something many other hospitals at the time would not allow.
The Douglass Hotel
1409 Lombard St.
Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, and the famed singer would return to the city multiple times throughout her career. She would often stay at the Douglass Hotel, in a building that is still there to this day.
The hotel made its debut in the Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938, marking its status as a secure haven for African American travelers during a time of segregation. it offered more than just lodging; it was a sanctuary for its visitors. Its lower level housed the legendary Showboat Club, a jazz bar that welcomed not only Holiday but also John Coltrane, who recorded live albums there in 1961 and 1963.
The Adger home
833 South St.
At Ninth and South Street sits the former home of Robert Adger. Born an enslaved man in South Carolina, Adger arrived in Philadelphia around 1848. An avid bibliophile, he founded the Afro-American Historical Society to house his growing collection of books and pamphlets about Black life in the U.S. He also developed business skills and rose to become director of the Philadelphia Building and Loan Association, one of the first African American mortgage companies.
His son, William Adger, went on to be the first Black student to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania.
Octavius V. Catto’s home
812 South St.
Originally from South Carolina, Octavius V. Catto arrived in Philadelphia in 1843 when he was a toddler. He grew up into an educator and a passionate political advocate, and for a period of time lived in the 7th Ward. Catto passionately advocated for the principles of abolition and equal rights, actively voicing his convictions both in educational settings and through public speeches. He also helped recruit Black soldiers for the Union cause in the Civil War.
On Election Day in 1871, while attempting to help calm a riot that had broken out because Black people were trying to vote, Catto was fatally shot at the intersection of 9th and South Streets. A memorial to his legacy stands outside Philadelphia City Hall.
Engine Company No. 11
1016 South St.
Engine Company No. 11 is thought to have been the first firehouse in the Philadelphia Fire Department to have a Black firefighter, appointed in the late 1880s. In 1902 the engine company moved to 10th and South Street. Around 1918, it was forcibly segregated, and only Black firefighters were assigned there. That situation lasted until desegregation of the PFD in 1952, during which time the station earned accolades for the dedication and diligence of its firefighting team.
The Frances Ellen Watkins Harper House
1006 Bainbridge St.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a prominent African American author known for her work in abolition, women’s rights, and civil rights activism, resided in this house. The structure stands as a three-story masonry building in the classic Philly brick rowhome style.
Harper was strongly committed to women’s suffrage and the quest for equal rights, employment opportunities, and educational access for Black women. She actively participated in the American Equal Suffrage Association and played a key role in establishing the American Woman Suffrage Association.
The Institute for Colored Youth
716-718 Lombard St.
The institute’s beginnings trace back to 1837, formed with funds endowed by a wealthy Quaker by the name of Richard Humphreys, who on his death bequeathed tens of thousands of dollars to training African Americans to become educators.
The resulting institution was named the Institute for Colored Youth, and in the 1850s it opened the Boys and Girls High Schools at 7th and Lombard. The facility became not only a place where Black teachers were trained, but a resource for the whole community, with a large lending library and regular lectures and panels open to the public. In the 1860s, during the Civil War, it expanded to a larger location at 9th and Lombard.
Meta V.W. Fuller’s home
254 South 12th St.
Meta V.W. Fuller was a prominent Black woman sculptor, who lived in Philly while she pursued her artistic education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, before traveling to Paris to hone her craft under the guidance of sculptor Auguste Rodin. Her remarkable accomplishments have left a mark on 20th Century sculpture art, and the blue historical plaque outside of her residency serves as a testament to her influence.
New public art initiative ‘Legacy Reclaimed’ aims to revive the Black history of Philly’s former 7th Ward
The Southern Dispensary for the Medical Relief of the Poor
318-320 Bainbridge St.
In the 1800s, “dispensary” was the name used for medical clinics that provided free services for people who couldn’t otherwise afford doctors and medical care. There was a central Philadelphia Dispensary, considered the nation’s first of its kind when it was established in 1786, and it eventually became overwhelmed — so it chartered outposts.
The Northern Dispensary, which served Northern Liberties to Kensington was chartered in 1816, followed in 1817 by the Southern Dispensary, which served the areas of Southwark, Moyamensing, and Passyunk.
William Still’s home
244 South 12th St.
Known as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, William Still was born in South Jersey, and moved to Philadelphia in 1844. Soon after, he got a job with the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, where he began his life’s work.
Still is thought to have been responsible for aiding and assisting over 600 enslaved people travel toward freedom, and is known for keeping meticulous records of them so their relatives could find them later. He later published a book, “The Underground Railroad,” which serves as one of the premier sources of information about that period. Still also went on to become a founding member of the first Black YMCA.