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.
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But Philadelphia isn't the first place such issues have surfaced at popular historical sites. In 1999, Colonial Williamsburg incorporated new research on slavery into a yearlong series of reenactments. In 2000, the National Park Service began teaching about the role of blacks at Revolutionary War sites. That same year, US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois succeeded in adding a provision to an appropriations bill directing that Civil War battlefield sites incorporate information about slavery.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite such moves, many people believe that the tragedy of slavery, if not ignored outright, is often watered down.
In Philadelphia, groups such as the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) have staged protests and sponsored petitions to try to ensure that doesn't happen at Independence Mall sites.
Their concerns were sparked when they discovered that the new Liberty Bell Center opening this fall would have its entryway right where local historians believe the slave quarters were in Washington's house. (The mansion was also home of the executive branch of the government from 1790 to 1800, though when Adams lived there, he did not keep slaves. It was torn down in the 1830s.)
Prompted by new research by historian Edward Lawler, activists lobbied for telling more fully the stories of the enslaved Africans in Washington's house. Washington had more than 100 slaves at Mount Vernon, Va. When he moved to Philadelphia, he brought eight of them, including two who later escaped at separate times: a woman named Oney Judge and the renowned household chef, Hercules.
In response to activists, the Park Service brought in Price as a consultant last year. The Liberty Bell Center design was already far along, but was changed to include more about slavery.
Then in January, the conceptual design for the adjacent President's House site was presented at a community meeting. Pavers in the ground would outline the homesite and slave quarters, and a scene would be etched in glass depicting the interaction of the white and black members of the household. A curving, 15-ft. wall would include a timeline of slavery on one side and of the free black community on the other. And in breaks in the wall, large sculptures would honor the contributions of African-American tradesmen (whether enslaved or free) to the building of the country. The estimated cost: $4.5 million.
At the time, people questioned whether money for such an ambitious project would come through. The park is waiting to hear about funding requests. Others at the meeting suggested that the process had been paternalistic and should start over using black designers and architects.
Price is African-American, but he upset people at the meeting when he characterized George Washington as a benevolent slaveholder. Later, in a phone interview, he said records show that slaves themselves made such distinctions between owners. "I was unprepared for the rage, which makes [some black activists] want to see slavery as an institution with no gradations," he says.
Talks have yielded some results, but "it is obvious to us our full history does not get represented without struggle," Michael Coard, an African-American lawyer here and an ATAC spokesman, said in a phone interview. The struggle continues, he says, because they were promised four more meetings this spring with the Park Service that have yet to materialize. Hence the Black Independence Day demonstration his group plans to stage Thursday.
Even the idea of calling Independence Mall the birthplace of democracy should be challenged, says Philadelphia talk-show host Reggie Bryant, reached by phone. "There's a certain falsity about the whole concept." He is involved with the local group Generations Unlimited, sponsor of the candlelight memorial walk. Their intent is to mark "a trail of blood and tears," Mr. Bryant says, and to offer a contrast to the celebratory "bombs bursting in air" on the Fourth of July.
Park officials say they plan to continue soliciting a wide range of input. "There's a way you can tell an accurate and full story without ignoring anybody's voice," says Phil Sheridan, Park Service spokesman. "[The display] won't be a condemnation of George Washington, but it also won't deny that he did have slaves."
Some members of the local black community see great potential in the $137.5 million Constitution Center and the Independence Mall proposals.