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Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: May 22-28, 2003
Byline: Mary F. Patel

Historical Gap at the Mall

With 49 days remaining until the grand opening of the National Constitutional Center, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) of Temple University and Rutgers University in Camden hosted an all-day seminar last Friday at the Independence Visitors Center. The goal was to chart the future of cultural work in the region while avoiding controversies, namely those that arise when ugly truths are ignored to sanitize history.

Funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and fueled by the recent discoveries that George Washington kept slaves at the mall site, the seminar began with a panel discussion titled "Learning From the Liberty Bell and President's House Controversy."

Last year, independent scholar and historian Edward Lawler, who was a panelist at the MARCH forum, publicized his discovery that Washington used the site for his slaves.

Washington's presidential mansion, located at Sixth and Market streets but partly demolished in 1832, had an adjacent building which served as slaves' quarters. In the old Independence National Historic Park plans, visitors to the Liberty Bell (in its new location) would be standing on the site of the demolished structure but wouldn't be made aware of the slave history.

Noted historians, including UCLA history professor and author Gary Nash, also a panelist at the forum, took interest in Lawler's findings and petitioned the National Park Service to alter the design, but met resistance. The Park Service said building plans were already in place so they couldn't be changed. After pressure from other historic and political groups, however, they decided to include references to the slave history. An outline will show where the presidential mansion was located and where the slaves lived, while another exhibit will detail the slaves' history there.

Was the fact that a revered president like George "I cannot tell a lie" Washington had slaves so distasteful that it would sully the positive patriotic experience of all those white tourists who stream into Philadelphia each day?

"You have to take history as it is, warts and all," Nash says.

Others agree.

"I'm an angry black guy," said Michael Coard, president of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a local group of concerned African Americans. Coard was also a panelist; Avenging the Ancestors was part of the successful effort to pressure the Park Service into acknowledging the slaves' existence. "I am angry but I will put my anger on hold and not lash out, not yet."

Was the pressure to present the entire truth about history scholarly or political? Nash says both and he's not alone.

"Black people don't really get political unless they are pushed up against the wall," said Shirley Parham, an educator, consultant and forum panelist. She added that the American Indians, also a part of Philadelphia history, have yet to be included in the new Independence Mall designs.

U.S. Representatives Bob Brady, Chaka Fattah and Joe Hoeffel and Sen. Specter are trying to secure extra federal funding to include a new Interpretive Center to acknowledge slave history at the site.

 

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