Grant to fund Dexter House documentary
Two Temple anthropology professors are digging into the life of James Dexter, a leader among freed slaves in the 1700s
Photo by Anthony Ranere
Temple’s David Orr and Anthony Ranere have received a grant from the William Penn Foundation to fund a documentary chronicling the excavation of the James Oronoko Dexter House in Old City.
The William Penn Foundation has awarded $82,500 to the anthropology department’s David Orr and Anthony Ranere to produce a documentary on the excavation at the site of the James Oronoko Dexter House in Philadelphia’s Old City district.
Ranere said the eight-month grant is for “making a documentary about the excavation of the Dexter House, about James Dexter himself, and his role in Philadelphia’s African-American community at the time the Constitution was being written.”
Dexter was a leading figure in Philadelphia’s Free African Society during the late 1700s, along with Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. His house, which was located in the vicinity of Fifth and Arch streets, was the site of the meetings for the creation of what is believed to be the first independent African-American church: the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
Orr, who in addition to being a member of the anthropology faculty is also regional archaeologist of the Mid-Atlantic Region for the National Park Service, said the excavated site was the backyard area of the house and is now the location of bus parking for the National Constitution Center.
“This documentary will depict the importance of the free African-American community as an untold story in the late 18th-century creation of the republic and the community’s role in social activities,” Orr said. “Plus, it will showcase the role of archaeology as a vehicle to tell a story that is interesting and dynamic.”
Photo by Muriel Kirkpatrick
(From left) Sound man John Kallapos; director/cameraman Mitchell Smith, a 1984 alumnus of the Tyler School of Art; the National Park Service’s Jed Levin; and anthropology professor Anthony Ranere work at the Dexter House excavation site.
Orr and Ranere are working with filmmaker Mitchell Smith, a 1984 photography alumnus of the Tyler School Art, who filmed the last several weeks of the excavation. He said he became involved with the project through sheer coincidence.
“I got connected with the project because I happened to be friends with someone at the National Park Service, who said, ‘Hey, I know you’re a filmmaker and they’re doing this excavation, which no one is doing anything with visually, so you should be filming this,’” Smith said.
The researchers expect to have the documentary completed by the early spring. The 46-minute film will be broadcast on WHYY-TV and in the Visitors’ Center at Independence Historical National Park. Currently, two three-minute promos are airing on the public television station, which, along with the Independence Historical National Park and Temple, is a partner in the project.
Orr said the documentary fits in with the researchers’ philosophy of “public archaeology.”
“If you’re going to dig, let the people see,” he said. “If you’re spending public money to excavate, you should not do it without the public’s awareness. I’ve tried to do that my whole career. This grant gives us the opportunity to do that by bringing the project to a much wider public audience.”
- By Preston M. Moretz