Robert Venable most likely came to Philadelphia a slave, shipped from Barbados as a little boy and ultimately bought and used by merchant Hugh Donaldson in the late 1740s.
But by the time of the Revolutionary War, when Venable moved into a small house at 79 N. Sixth St., he was a free man, manumitted by Donaldson in an act of generosity Venable would never forget.
His was a momentous move at a momentous time to an extraordinary part of the city — the block where the National Constitution Center now stands, which two centuries ago buzzed with the birth of free black America.
The Venable story, much of it locked underground and forgotten for centuries, is the kind of story Independence National Historical Park has started to tell visitors in recent years, largely thanks to archaeology.
"From an archaeological perspective, the Venable lot is the holy grail of African American sites in Philadelphia," said Douglas Mooney, an archaeologist with URS Group.
Mooney has been involved in extensive park excavations in recent years, including the massive dig that preceded construction of the Constitution Center in 2000. Of Venable's buried site, he said, "All indications are that the property is exceptionally well preserved — and it's right out the side door of the NCC, where it's all green grass."
Within a few years of Venable's move, James Oronoko Dexter arrived on the other side of that block, on North Fifth Street, and Israel Burgow took up residence in the middle. All three former slaves helped found St. Thomas African Episcopal Church and were part of an important, growing enclave of free blacks, about 60 of whom lived on the block by 1790. These are the people UCLA historian Gary Nash has called "the founding fathers of black America."
But while the homesites of Dexter and Burgow have been excavated, the modest house where Venable lived for more than half a century has not. Archaeologists say they are not aware of any other early African American homesite occupied by a single family for a longer period of time. They sense treasure.
The Venable homesite is "not pristine," Mooney said. "But even after a later building was put up, there were open backyard ground spaces all around him. We've got . . . original historic ground surfaces all around him."
For Venable to be largely forgotten is more than a little ironic: He was a man who seemed to remember everything. And since he lived to be nearly 102 years old (he died in late 1831), that encompassed a great deal — the legal end of slavery in Pennsylvania in 1780, the end of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, the rise of anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant feeling in the 1830s.
W.E.B. Du Bois called Venable "a man of some intelligence" based on his stories recounted in John Fanning Watson's Annals of Philadelphia (1857), a great stew of anecdotes, some of which have considerable contemporary resonance. Venable, for instance, told Watson that early Philadelphia was so mired in mud and manure that citizens called it "Filthy-Dirty."
He remembered the city's first theatrical performance, a production of Addison's Cato, on a stage in William Plumstead's warehouse on Water Street in 1749; he remembered the earthquake that greeted the arrival of John Penn, last colonial governor, in 1763 — it so rattled Christ Church that Venable was "afraid to run down the stairs from the gallery, 'they shook so!' " And he remembered watching the sale of slaves at the London Coffee House at Front and Market.
When Venable died in 1831, his daughter, Nancy, and her husband, Cyrus Porter, were living with several of their children in the North Sixth Street house. They became embroiled in a dispute over it with John Donaldson, grandson of Venable's former owner. Venable had bequeathed his property to John to show his gratitude to the grandfather, who had freed him.
Donaldson won the lawsuit, but Venable's family refused to leave. In 1834, Donaldson and a developer who purchased the property broke in, "forcibly seized the kids and held them hostage and moved all of their belongings," Mooney said. Another court case ensued, and this time Donaldson lost. Word spread around town and "all of it became part of the anti-black sentiment and rioting" building in Philadelphia at the time, Mooney said.
In fact, the family may still have been in the house when abolitionists met in 1838 in brand-new Pennsylvania Hall, built by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society almost directly across the street. Three days after it opened, rioters burned it to the ground.
Cynthia MacLeod, Independence Park superintendent, said in an e-mail that the park had no plans, or funds, to excavate the Venable site, "though I am sure the project would be fascinating and imbue the park with even more authenticity and reveal additional stories."
Archaeologists agree that it could produce a wealth of information, citing the nearby homesite of James Dexter on North Fifth Street. Not much was known about Dexter, a coachman, but the prospect of archaeological work on the NCC site spurred documentary research, and an intriguing portrait emerged.
Dexter was one of a group of early black leaders who in 1782 petitioned for control of a portion of Washington Square, to use as a black burial ground. A decade later he signed another petition, asking the second U.S. Congress to abolish slavery and establish a safe haven for blacks on the west coast of Africa.
He was employed for years by John Pemberton, a wealthy Quaker who left him a bequest and then, on his deathbed, added another bequest, to Dexter and Absalom Jones, to administer the "Society of Black People for the support of the Poor," possibly referring to the Free African Society or its successor.
Much of this information was discovered by Daniel Rolph, head of reference services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Mooney, continuing the research, has uncovered several references to James Oronoko Dexter in Pemberton letters and in the diary of Elizabeth Drinker, who called him "Noke."
On Aug. 10, 1799, she wrote: "Oronoko is dead — our Jacob went to his funeral. Many a pleasant ride have I taken with his mistress [Hannah Pemberton] under his care and protection. Poor Noke!"
Dexter's homesite, where the National Park Service and Constitution Center planned to build a bus depot, was excavated in 2003 at the urging of leaders of St. Thomas and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. About 40,000 artifacts were unearthed, says Jed Levin, park service archaeologist and research director at the Independence Living History Center, the public archaeology lab.
To Levin's amazement, material in a barrel buried behind the house could be directly linked to Dexter's occupancy. The barrel contained fragments of inexpensive local ceramics, as well as some very fine porcelain — the kind Dexter might have used when entertaining major figures like Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, William Gray, and others in his circle.
Food remains offered clues about the Dexter family table. Documentary research showed Dexter was well paid for a free black of his day, relative affluence that was reflected in his diet. He and his daughter, Diligence, often dined on fish and fine cuts of meat. (His wife, Priss, whose freedom he purchased, died in 1785; his son, name unknown, the next year.)
Levin remains fascinated, however, by the huge numbers of pig's knuckles and feet that also were served in the house. Such food could be a link to Dexter's enslaved past, a time in his life when a pig's foot might be the only meat available.
"We define ourselves to a degree more than we are usually conscious of by what we eat," Levin said. "This may be a cultural link with his past."
In the same way, Levin said, the buried barrel behind Dexter's kitchen suggested links to West Africa. Deposits in it were distributed in thin layers of soil, layers upon layers, like phyllo pastry.
"It looks like the barrel was used to receive sweepings from the yard, as they swept the backyard area into the pit over time," Levin said. "That's interesting because we know there's a West African cultural tradition — you'd keep your yard scrupulously clean all the time by sweeping. It may be that what we're seeing here is a cultural continuity with Dexter's African background. Not to suggest that he came directly from Africa or that he was even aware of it. But we know in the American South to this day there is a pattern of swept yards."
Such subtle insights, bolstered by intensive documentary research, are the result of an archaeological focus. Slowly, over time, the hidden past emerges. Independence Park has incorporated the Dexter excavation and findings into a number of its teaching programs. Artifacts have been on display at the history center.
But Dexter's homesite itself was covered over when the excavation ended, and now his piece of Independence Mall, like Robert Venable's, lies underground.
"Dexter is clearly one of the leading figures in the African American community, even before Richard Allen and Absalom Jones came on the scene," Mooney said. "It's unbelievable. The stories potentially there are incredible."