When Myth Prevails and History Fails

Independence Hall, Rear View, June 24,1931. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess.

Philadelphia, we too-often think, has a corner on history when it comes to Liberty, Freedom and all that was right with America. We have historical sites to prove it, so it must be true.

But what happens to the sites that tell the downside of history, sites that contradict the prevailing and preferred narrative? Well, those sites tend to disappear from the cityscape and from the public imagination. They become forgotten, and so are their stories—even when those stories would be valuable to illustrate a point.

Take, for example, the turning point in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, his March 18, 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech at the National Constitution Center. The constitution, said Obama, was “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.” “In a hall that still stands across the street,” he explained, “a group of men gathered and … launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.” Obama was referring to Independence Hall, which is actually two blocks from where he spoke. The hall across the street that the President didn’t know about, but would have wanted to, was Pennsylvania Hall. It, too, was an embodiment of an “improbable experiment in democracy”—and a failed one, at that. But Obama had no idea about this sordid chapter in American intolerance. He made do with what he could point to.

Unlike Independence Hall, Pennsylvania Hall no longer stands.  It lasted only three days before a rioting mob burned it down. Pennsylvania Hall doesn’t stand, and isn’t remembered. You won’t find an image here at PhillyHistory.org and you don’t often find it talked about in the Philadelphia narrative of freedom, liberty and independence. And we didn’t hear about it in Obama’s speech.

The destruction of Pennsylvania Hall flies in the face of the preferred Philadelphia mythology. But the fact that the building doesn’t survive to remind us of its story is no  excuse. The lack of a site doesn’t make the incident any less true, or less potent. What we have in the story of Pennsylvania Hall is nothing less than a  reality check in a city where the past is sometimes framed in myth more than fact.

The Burning of Pennsylvania Hall, May 18, 1838. Credit: The Library Company of Philadelphia.

And what are those facts? Advocates for the abolition of slavery had been turned away from every other meeting place in the city, even those run by Quakers. So the abolitionists raised funds and built their own meeting hall. On May 14, 1838, Pennsylvania Hall opened on Sixth Street, south of Race. Free speech ran rampant as men and women of both races met and conversed in a place devoted to American ideals.

As discussions took place inside, angry crowds gathered outside. Night after night, the mob grew. On May 18th, shouts and threats gave way to rocks and flames and the mob set Pennsylvania Hall on fire. Philadelphia’s fire companies came out—but only to douse the roofs of nearby properties.

In the Spring of 1838, and for years to come, every American knew what happened in Philadelphia that night. The Athens of America had fallen. Pennsylvania Hall’s charred ruins stood for years as an eloquent scar in the now ironically intolerant City of Brotherly Love. Visitors at Independence Hall looked up Sixth Street and saw the ruins. The burning of Pennsylvania Hall would forever be associated with Philadelphia, or so it seemed.

Today, the ruins are long gone and their memory has faded. At the site of Pennsylvania Hall, where WHYY stands, we make do with the terse message cast on a blue and gold historical marker. But real, resonant history calls for more than a sentence on a sidewalk. Pennsylvania Hall has a story that deserves to be remembered.

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