The other side of liberty
At the very moment they were in Philadelphia declaring that all men are created equal, many of America's Founding Fathers were slave owners. Activists are now demanding a fuller accounting at democracy's birthplace.
When visitors alight from their tour buses for Friday's opening of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, they'll be celebrating Independence Day in a place where the story of American freedom is anything but simple.Skip to next paragraph
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The center is part of the 45-acre Independence National Historical Park, where ongoing revitalization plans are a flash point for fierce debates over whose truth is being told, and how.
The symbolic fault lines can be found just beneath the soil. Under the bus drop-off area, for instance, lies the historic homesite of James Dexter, a former slave who cofounded The Free African Society in 1787. The site would have been paved over with no exploration, if not for a concerted drive by local African-American activists.
Now that it has been excavated and commemorated in an exhibit, the site can put into context to a more familiar event of 1787 - the Constitutional Convention. Delegates met three blocks from Dexter's home, at what is now known as Independence Hall, to hammer out the terms of the new nation - including counting each slave as three-fifths of a person and extending the slave trade for the next 20 years.
Although disputes continue to bubble up, many historians, activists, and park officials say this juncture is a unique opportunity to examine the paradoxes at the country's very foundation. While popular history often relegates slavery to the shadows when celebrating the Founding Fathers, now its inextricable links to the economic and political beginnings of the United States are being brought to light.
"It will challenge old ideas [for people to see that] America's most-agreed-upon 'birthplace of freedom' was 'complicated' by slavery - that is something that Americans need to know," says Clement Alexander Price, a history professor at Rutgers University, and a consultant to the park service on the site where Presidents George Washington and John Adams lived and governed.
"Liberty for some Americans came at the price of enslavement for other Americans," he says. "The 1790s was a very critical period, because it was the first decade of the new republic, and at end of it, the country had pretty much decided that it was not going to deal with slavery."
Some activists say decisionmakers today are still not dealing adequately with the slavery issue - and they worry that, with over $100 million of federal money being poured into the park's revitalization, this key opportunity might be squandered. At the time of publication, two groups were planning demonstrations: a candlelight memorial walk Wednesday to Philadelphia sites where Africans were sold as slaves; and a "Black Independence Day" Thursday on Independence Mall, to "free" the stories of African ancestors.
For their part, representatives of the Constitution Center (an independent nonprofit organization) and the park say they've never had any intention of shying away from slavery and other complexities of early American history.
Central to that story are the slavery compromises at the Constitutional Convention (see story), which left a mixed legacy of prosperity and victimization, unity and civil war, treasured diversity and modern-day racism. Efforts to portray that legacy are often caught between two camps: those who say there's not enough truth-telling about racial injustice, and those who say that a patriotic view of the Founding Fathers will be unnecessarily sullied by dwelling too much on slavery.
"There are lots of people who think that kids will not want to be American if they learn [about slavery and] genocide against Indians," says Gary Nash, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has done extensive research on Colonial Pennsylvania and has advocated for greater representation of African-American history at Independence Park. But for the most part, he adds, "Americans do not think that it is unpatriotic to talk about our blemishes."
The saving grace in Philadelphia may be that the story of the African-American experience there is not just a story of slavery, but also of "free" blacks and their crucial role in establishing black churches, the Underground Railroad, and other key institutions.
"The best way to shed light on the juxtaposition of freedom and slavery," Professor Price says, "is to point to the fact that as more Americans of African ancestry were gaining their freedom during and after the American Revolution, they put a very high premium on freedom - hence enhancing the meaning of freedom in a society that still had not made up its mind as to how free or how enslaved it was going to be."