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Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: March 8, 2007
Byline: Bruce Schimmel

When Will It End?

Absolution for slavery arrives one person at a time.

The young woman across the table at the pizzeria had those unearthly blue eyes that always give me a spasm of panic. Aryan eyes that, for me, signify the striving of a self-appointed master race. Eyes that crank up my adrenals and produce a tremor of terror.

But for this lovely German woman in her 20s, the gentle mother of a happy little boy, intimidation was far from her intent. She sought the opposite. In asking, "When will it finally end?" she yearned not for a final solution but a reconciliation.

The woman's own parents were infants when the Nazis came to power. But the German nation's ongoing agony to absolve its collective guilt isn't personal; it's embedded in the country's heritage. Which makes me wonder when and how the American people will rectify the genocide that came from centuries of African-American slavery.

As we sat in the restaurant, watching kids slurp Cokes and snarf pizza, the young woman described how Germans, even now, are shy about waving flags on national holidays. The shame of the Holocaust is deep and abiding, which in part drove her to leave Germany for America, and even to consider becoming a Jew. She asked, when will it end?

I was moved by her sincerity. So I said to her what I once told another German friend who, after many years, finally summoned the courage to mention the unmentionable: For her and me, the pain would end here and now. And having said that, she was as relieved as I was, her eyes seeming to glow a soft baby blue.

Absolution begins with the commitment of a nation, but it arrives one person at a time.

Recently, the United States began to acknowledge its deepest sin. The Virginia General Assembly became the first state to express its profound regret for slavery. But even before the ink was dry, one Virginia legislator short-circuited reconciliation by urging "black citizens to get over it."

Get over it? Compared to Germany's protracted penance or South Africa's quest for reconciliation, America is barely getting around to it.

Philadelphia, I'm proud to say, is leading the charge to avenge these wrongs in a righteous way. Last week, this city made news around the world, not for murder and mayhem, but as a place to make peace.

That place will be the site of the first President's House, which once stood on Independence Mall. The nation's first executive mansion, which housed George Washington, also imprisoned the chief executive's nine slaves.

Washington likely shackled some slaves nightly in a squat brick building that once stood near what is now the front door of the new Liberty Bell pavilion. It's a prison that the National Park Service literally paved over.

Last week, a local African-American received the commission to resurrect the President's House as a place of truth-telling. Harvard-trained architect Emanuel Kelly is white-whiskered, tall and elegant, with the demeanor of an elder, although everyone simply calls him Kelly.

As we sat in his office, I longed to ask Kelly the same question my German friend asked, but I couldn't summon the courage.

Kelly may not know when it will end, but he knows where it will begin. By early 2008, the historic site will resonate with stories once lost and now found. Restoring the President's House may be one of the most important acts of racial reconciliation in my lifetime, and surely John Street's most enduring legacy.

Kelly offered to take me on a tour. In what will become the dining hall, he described how we'll hear George and Martha Washington planning to recapture a runaway slave. In the steward's room, Washington will figure out how to skirt Pennsylvania law, thwarting his slaves from gaining their freedom. In the kitchen, Washington's cook, Hercules, will be heard hatching his eventual escape plan. In the servants' dining hall, Christopher Sheels, the one literate slave, secretly reads from a newspaper.

The hardest dialogue to re-create? I asked. "The slave quarters," Kelly answered — the final stop of our tour. Who knows what Washington's grooms, tossing and turning on straw pallets, whispered to one another in the cold night?

"When will it end?" I imagine the slaves asking in their prayers. It's the same question visitors of all colors might also ask each other in this place of absolution. Which for those blessed, the answer could be: here and now

 

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