For more than a year, an urban legend has been circulating that George Washington's former slaves are buried in the third block of Independence Mall, beneath the site of the new National Constitution Center.
Last week on the eve of the opening of the National Constitution Center, members of the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) staged a protest demanding that the National Park Service recognize that Washington kept slaves at his Old City "White House," by installing a commemorative project at the Liberty Bell. Also attending that July 3 rally were protesters from the International Action Center (IAC), an organization founded by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. IAC members carried signs reading "Honor the African Burial Grounds," implying that these former slaves were, in fact, still interred beneath the Constitution Center. Michael Coard, an ATAC member and a protest organizer, says that IAC was misinformed.
"I really don't know where that rumor came from," Coard says, "but there are no bodies buried at the site at Sixth and Market streets and there is no connection whatsoever between ATAC and [IAC]. This kind of bad information may be well intentioned, but it's a total mistake. It doesn't help our cause. In fact, it confuses people."
A phone call to the Philadelphia headquarters of the IAC went unreturned, but Richard Duncan, a volunteer at IAC's New York City headquarters, explained that the members who attended last week's protest did so because, "On a part of the site of the new Constitution Center is where George Washington buried his slaves."
Duncan was surprised to learn that archeological records show this information is incorrect.
Jed Levin, a National Park Service archeologist, says he believes the rumor began when an excavation of the site prior to construction unearthed remains of more than 100 European Americans left behind when a cemetery that existed there over a hundred years ago was relocated to West Philly. For a period of time, Levin says, the 100-year-old cemetery did harbor both blacks and whites, although he says no black bodies were discovered during his dig.
"Today there are no burials underneath the National Constitution Center," Levin says. "We can't say for sure, though, that there aren't bodies under the walkways that are outside of the building. We're not going to disturb that area, so if there are any bodies still there, they'll be left in place."
Word to the wise: Watch your step.