Thanks to activist, new site to include legacy of slavery
PHILADELPHIA — The last time I was in Philadelphia was for the Million Woman March in 1997.
It was a drive-through event where thousands of women flocked to Philly, spent a day listening to speeches, and boarded buses back to their homes.
What a mistake that was.
Philly has such rich history, I don't know why I was content to pass through the city without at least stopping by the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, the oldest black church in the United States.
"Mother Bethel" is where Richard Allen, the founder of the A.M.E. Church, is buried in a crypt, and where historical black figures such as Harriet Tubman actually spoke.
I'm here attending the Trotter Group's annual gathering of black columnists from across the country. The retreat is more than an opportunity to catch up to colleagues. It is a brief respite from the backlash most of us get because we often write about sensitive topics involving race and class in America.
During our visit to Philadelphia, we will have access to many of the national figures involved in critical policy debates on issues that affect African-American communities.
Until now, I hadn't heard of the amazing work of Michael Coard, an attorney and activist who formed a coalition that waged a successful campaign to include the history of slavery at the new site for the famous Liberty Bell.
Before Monday, had someone suggested I take a tour of the Liberty Bell, I would have turned up my nose. Like many Americans, I've had a difficult time feeling any real connection between America's cherished symbol and black people.
But Coard and a group of attorneys, architects, historians and archeologists have found a stunning link to the new site where the Liberty Bell will be moved about a half-block away.
"What has taken place in Philadelphia is absolutely historic," Coard told us. "Because for the first time in American history the federal government has not only acknowledged slavery formally, but agreed to do something about it. That's never happened before. It's never happened since 1776. This is absolutely groundbreaking in terms of history."
Five years ago, when Coard, who was then a radio personality, heard that the Liberty Bell was moving from its present site to a half block west, the news was interesting, but not particularly relevant to black people.
That changed when it became known that the bell's new home was also the site of America's first "White House."
"What we found out shakes the very foundation of American history as we know it," Coard said.
"This is the site where George Washington, the president of the United States, held black people in bondage. We knew he had 316 enslaved Africans in his Mount Vernon plantation. What we didn't know is that he had brought nine to Philadelphia and housed them," he said.
"When you go to the new Liberty Bell Center — a mere five feet from the main entrance to the new Liberty Bell is where the slave quarters stood," Coard pointed out.
"Our group used that as a sound bite. We said as you enter this heaven of liberty, you literally will have to cross the hell of slavery."
At that point, any talk of commemorating the "first White House" had to also commemorate the institution of slavery as it played out in the North.
"If this is Independence Mall, then history is all about the truth," Coard said. "You have to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Over the next five years, Coard led a coalition that became known as the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition, or ATAC.
After a persistent letter-writing campaign aimed at the National Park Service, the ATAC garnered 15,000 signatures and led large demonstrations while continuing to research Washington's slave-holding, including compiling bios of the nine slaves who were held in bondage at the first White House.
In 2003, ATAC helped secure $1.5 million in funding from Philadelphia's mayor, John Street, and also has secured an additional $3.6 million in federal funding for the President's House project.
"Our ragtag grass-roots group forced government officials to go from denying to designing this project," Coard said.
When the project is completed, for the first time in America, African-American children from across the country will be able to visit the Liberty Bell not as spectators — but as witnesses.