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Dig before Depot Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Julia M. Klein

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Archaeologists clear rubble from the James Dexter house in Philadelphia. The local community pushed hard for the dig. (National Park Service)

The eighteenth-century Philadelphia house of James Dexter, who helped found the country's first black self-help organization, will not lie forgotten beneath a planned tour bus depot.

The National Park Service, which maintains Independence Mall and the National Constitution Center, slated to open July 4, were originally against excavating the Dexter house, saying the site wouldn't be disturbed by the bus depot and that it was unlikely to contain much of interest. But leaders of two local black churches that trace their roots to Dexter's Free African Society argued that it would be a shame not to find out.

"Our argument was that so little is known about African Americans of this period," said Rev. Jeffrey N. Leath, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. He was joined by Arthur Sudler, director of the historical society of St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church, and other supporters.

The church leaders "were eminently reasonable," said Joseph M. Torsella, president and chief executive officer of the Constitution Center. The debate captured the imagination of the community, Torsella added. "We became persuaded in this instance that excavation was the right thing to do."

Jed Levin, the park service archaeologist overseeing the excavation, said the Dexter dig has so far uncovered a trove of nineteenth-century ceramics that might "provide a richer way to interpret" other findings about Philadelphia's early community of free blacks.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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