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Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: July 14-20, 2005
Byline: by Bruce Schimmel

Slaves of the Mall

The Street administration vows to complete the controversial "President's House."

John Street has been known to break a promise or two, but this is one I'm betting he'll keep — all because of a pledge he made to a couple of his closest staffers.

This week, in the fourth article in a series on Independence Mall, I was going to report that the "President's House" had been intentionally buried by the city bureaucracy. But right at deadline — wouldn't you know it — the mayor's chief of staff, Joyce Wilkerson, called to say that Street is going to fast-track the project and get it done before he leaves office in 2007.

A woman of magisterial demeanor, Wilkerson sits next to the mayor at cabinet meetings — the only member with a reserved seat. Wilkerson is the instrument the mayor chooses most often when he needs to get something done.

And this will take some doing. There's no final design for the project, and with only a third of the required funds raised — silly me — I still believe Wilkerson when she says, "If I have to, I'll do it myself."

Politically, this may be right for the mayor. As his tenure winds down, now's time to spend the political capital it'll take to reach a consensus over this racially charged project, which the National Park Service has whitewashed for more than 30 years.

The President's House is the site of the nation's earliest executive mansion, located on the corner of 6th and Market streets. In the 1970s, the National Park Service uncovered, and then re-covered again, evidence that George Washington kept slaves there. In 1997, well before the new Liberty Bell pavilion was built, historians also discovered that Washington not only kept slaves, but had sleeping quarters constructed to accommodate, if not outright imprison them.

When the design for the President's House received its first public viewing in 2003, the audience was stunned to see that there was still nothing about Washington's federally funded slave quarters.

Since then, millions of Independence Mall visitors — fresh from a security screening on their way to the Liberty Bell — have walked right over the 10-by-10-foot spot without getting as much as a hint that Washington's slaves once slept there. (After my column last week, the Park Service e-mailed to say that they expect to erect interpretive signs on that location by this fall. Now the city's promise trumps this minor concession.)

The unacknowledged slave quarters became somewhat of a cause celebre. It was such an embarrassment that the National Park Service yanked the design and background info from its Web site. (These are still available through an independent site, http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/plans/jan2003/index.htm)

It seems that Park Service wanted the President's House problem to go away, and amazingly, the Street administration obliged them by paying for the privilege to take on the project — offering to pay $1.5 million of an estimated $4.5 million budget. This from a mayor whose fiscal mantra is that the city is just one big snowstorm away from a busted budget.

The city got the project last November. As Independent Park Service superintendent Dennis Reidenback recently put it, "the ball is in their court." And if the Park Service had hoped to cool the outcry by burying the project, they got their wish, as the project bounced around City Hall for eight months. But now that Wilkerson has taken over, the Park Service may find itself on a fast track.

In Wilkerson's words, the city "will drive the design process." Within a month, the city will issue a request for proposals from architects, artists, activists, museum and historical experts to enlarge the current narrative behind the President's House. Not only will the expanded story include Washington's slaves and their sleeping quarters, but it will also tell the long overdue tale of how the National Park Service hid the truth from the American public.

In Wilkerson's words, "We want to make part of the [House's] history the story of why this was buried so long."

For Wilkerson, the mayor is making good on a personal promise. "When we learned about this early on, [former press secretary] Barbara Grant and I went to the mayor, and said we need to do this on our watch." The mayor, ever the fiscal watchdog, says Wilkerson, "didn't blink."

The project is still $3 million short. But for Wilkerson, even in a city always teetering on solvency "this is not one of those things where money is an issue."

This is a perfect project for this city. With the President's House, Philadelphia will erect the nation's first federal memorial to slavery in a location that is rich in history and laden with terrible ironies. Imagine how millions will stand in a slave's prison while gazing at Independence Hall, contemplating those ancient, self-evident truths that we've still to achieve — and the lies we've told ourselves to avoid doing so.

 

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