10/29/2013 06:01 pm ET | Updated Dec 29, 2013

On Our Tides of Freedom

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I build my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

-- Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1920)


By Tukufu Zuberi and Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier

You may be distracted by the buzz of the city traffic as you walk along Center City Philadelphia's Market Street, the whoosh of cars passing below on Route 95, and the sight of crowds spilling from retro candy and ice cream shops. It's easy to walk by the historic marker in front of you when you turn onto Front Street.

But this marker is worth seeing.

The careful listener stops, looks up, and reads the words. This was once the site of the London Coffee House, a bustling hub for political and commercial activity. Here, the city's merchants, businessmen, and local officials sipped coffee, drank beer, and spoke, joked, and argued about the latest news from London. Just outside, fear, agony, and despair gripped the children, teenagers, men and women who stood, chained and shackled, upon an auction block. As the historic marker tells us, this is where Africans, recently arrived from Africa's west coast, were inspected, bid upon, and then sold into slavery.

The slave auction was here because Front Street was once Philadelphia's main thoroughfare. It ran along a bluff above the Delaware River, the waterway that was the city's lifeblood and the point of arrival for enslaved Africans since the late 1600s. Here, tall ships that had traversed the Atlantic and sailed up the Delaware unloaded a human cargo to fuel the labor needs, and the greed, of a colonial economy.

Just a few blocks from the site of the London Coffee House stands the Independence Seaport Museum. Located at the port at Penn's landing -- once Philadelphia's front door -- it is dedicated to exploring the city's maritime heritage, which has been so inextricably linked to its development. The city's waterways stand as a symbol of freedom and despair, and opportunity and captivity. The Delaware River helped America win its independence and welcomed those seeking a better life in the New World while also serving as a pathway to enslavement and Jim Crow.

This year the museum opened a multi-media exhibition, "Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River," curated by Tukufu Zuberi. Tides of Freedom explores the shifting meanings of freedom through the evolution -- and the material culture -- of the African experience along this tidal waterway. The Delaware River plays a powerful role in African American history, and our exhibit helps interpret the African American waterways story. A history of displacement, courage, and fights for equality and freedom are told using objects, words, photos and videos.

Artifacts from the historic black experience are rare. But recently uncovered objects from the collections of the Independence Seaport Museum and fellow institutions are witness to the lives, history, and impact of Africans on the waterfront. Shackles and a slave sale ledger are physical reminders of brutal restraint and inhuman practice. The business papers of free black sailmaker, businessman, and activist James Forten are a window onto the ideal of what a life in freedom could be. The tools used by oyster shuckers in nearby Port Norris; the photographs that chronicle a segregated World War II shipyard; a contemporary tug captain's work gloves: together, these and other images and artifacts provide a unique glimpse into the past.

Using these objects and the first-person accounts of those who lived, worked, and traveled along the Delaware, the exhibition unfolds in five chapters that take us from eighteenth-century Africa to the twenty-first century port: Middle Passage; Enslavement; Emancipation; Jim Crow; and Civil Rights. And they help us connect, learn, bear witness, and empathize with the efforts to define a more inclusive freedom.

And now what we have briefly sketched in large outline let us in the coming months tell again in deeper detail, a story rooted in a specific place and specific times, the stories they tell speak not just to Philadelphia, or Pennsylvania, or the tidal Delaware River, but to a nation. They serve as a lens onto an idea that has transformed the world: the notion of freedom, and who is free.

Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier is an independent curator, exhibition developer, and writer, and principal of REW & Co.

Image of the London Coffee House. Courtesy of the Collections of Independence Seaport Museum, gift courtesy of First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company