PHILADELPHIA — A memorial near the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia marking the spot where George Washington lived as president with a number of slaves is scheduled to be dedicated this week after years of debate and demonstrations.
The opening of the President's House had been planned for Independence Day, and officials even hoped that President Obama might attend, but was pushed back for revisions to better portray slavery in the nation's early days. Now, the site will be dedicated with a simple ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday.
The planned explanatory displays for "President's House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation" have been the subject of controversy as officials tried to balance describing the home of presidents George Washington and John Adams just steps from Independence Hall and the stories of the nine slaves Washington kept there.
Superintendent Cynthia MacLeod of Independence National Historical Park acknowledged that mid-December might not be the ideal time to open, but she told The Philadelphia Inquirer that it would be "unfortunate" not to call attention to completion of the project.
"The exhibit really brings to the fore this dichotomy in our country of freedom and slavery," MacLeod said. "The Declaration of Independence at that time did not mean everyone. It took the Civil War to abolish slavery, and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s to make civil rights more of a reality in addition to freedom."
The city has managed design and construction since 2005, and the park will now assumes responsibility for the $10.5 million project. Behind the site marking the place where Washington and Adams lived is an enclosure of glass, wood, and steel commemorating the nine slaves.
"The installation in and of itself will do what educational exhibitions are meant to do — provoke thought and debate — and I think there will be a lot of thought and debate," said Clay Armbrister, Mayor Michael Nutter's chief of staff.
Joyce Wilkerson, chief of staff for Mayor John F. Street when he committed the city to the project in 2003, calls it "a piece of history that needed to be on the table."
"We have this Disneyland view of how the country came to be founded that just isn't true," said Wilkerson, now head of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. "This country was built on the backs of workers who were enslaved. It was built on the backs of Native Americans, who were exterminated. It's not pretty. It's not a pretty history."
St. Joseph's University professor Randall Miller, however, worries that Washington's personal struggles with the issue of slavery might not be adequately portrayed and connected to the larger struggle in the nation.
"My concern is that this is not reduced to a morality play with George Washington all bad," Miller said. "He's not just another slaveholder. He's George Washington. That's what gives this place its power."
But Michael Coard, a founder of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which pushed for the memorial, said the project is a start at redressing generations of imbalance in the telling of the nation's story.
When Coard was a pupil in Philadelphia, "there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about slavery, but there was everything about the greatness of George Washington. In fact, he was deified and still is," Coard said. "But now the door is open for everybody. The little black boys, the little black girls, the little white boys, the little white girls."