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Source: Philadelphia Citypaper
Date: June 22-28, 2006
Byline: Bruce Schimmel

Our Slaves, Our Selves

Here's a cheery thought for the upcoming Fourth: Our freedom was founded on cruelty, genocide and slavery. But you know this already. Most of our ancestors fled from oppression. Billy Penn, ever the crafty land developer, may have promoted Philadelphia as a holy Eden. But almost all who risked the voyage came here to escape a hell on earth.

That inalienable human rights will conquer man's inhumanity makes a fine tale for many Americans. But for those whose ancestors didn't flee from genocide, and instead were dragged into it, that story rings sour.

For many, our nation's apple pie tale is rotten at the core. That's because the story of African-American slavery has been cut off from the mainstream narrative, said historian Howard Dodson to an audience of several hundred recently at the Convention Center. Dodson heads the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.

On the agenda was how best to reveal the hidden story of the slaves who lived on Independence Mall. In the nation's first executive mansion, nine slaves served under their master, George Washington.

For decades, Dodson said that black history found no place in the textbooks that honed children's civic pride. And neither did the tale of the president's slaves find a place on Independence Mall. That's about to change.

That George Washington kept slaves in Virginia has never been denied. But about 30 years ago, it was discovered that as president, he also kept slaves in Philadelphia. So the National Park Service did what's generally done with ugly stuff. They buried it.

In 1997, independent historian Ed Lawler rediscovered the slaves' story, and that they were locked in nightly in a bunkhouse near the executive mansion. To keep slaves in a free state, Washington even exploited a loophole, by periodically swapping his Philadelphia slaves with those in Virginia. And when some slaves did manage to escape, Washington relentlessly hunted them down.

Still, the Park Service denied the truth. Three years ago, they added insult to ignorance by building part of a new pavilion for the Liberty Bell right over where slaves slept.

Last year, though, Lawler's protests paid off. Mayor John Street found some city funds and essentially hijacked the project from the Park Service. The mayor declared that the President's House would be complete by the end of his term, and amazingly, it looks likely.

The mayor's office held a competition, and recently chose six teams to design a monument to express some key themes:

A wondrous thing will soon be seen on Independence Mall: The federal government will confess how it systematically lied to us.

How this will finally come together is still in play. All are invited to comment at www.phila.gov/presidentshouse.

It's time to hear the whole story. I know the anger of a tale that's not told. As an Armenian whose people were exterminated in the 20th century's first holocaust I live with that outrage, because the Turkish government still denies the slaughter. But as a Jew, I also know that Germany's diligent truth-telling has healed many wounds. As I said recently to a friend who was born in Germany, that debt (at least for me) is just about paid — even as it's recorded forever.

The descendants of American slavery also deserve a place to have their tale heard. A prominent and permanent place. We all deserve it. Because ultimately this story is America's story: for the tales of our slaves is also part of our selves.

 

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