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Source: Cross Ties/Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities
Date: Summer 2007
Byline: Michael Coard

Passionate Activists and Scholarly Professionals: A Dynamic Duo

Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) and others recently won a relentless five-year battle to persuade the National Park Service (NPS) and Independence National Historical Park (INHP) to create an installation at the President's House in Philadelphia that includes a commemoration of slavery. This commemoration will specifically honor nine people of African ancestry enslaved by George and Martha Washington at America's first official Executive Mansion. The site, a house owned by Robert Morris and rented to the nation as an executive mansion, stood on today's Independence Mall, just steps away from the Liberty Bell Center. As the first American monument to the sufferings and labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants, this commemoration also honors many millions whose names we no longer know, by showing how entangled American liberty always was with American slavery.

The battle to build this commemoration was won because activists and scholars found ways to work together. ATAC, a broad-based coalition of African American activists, spearheaded a voluminous letter writing campaign and accumulated more than 15,000 signatures during a petition drive, all calling for a full exploration of slavery at this site. In addition, ATAC held massive annual demonstrations in front of the site right before Independence Day in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005. Historical researchers provided the factual information — or, better stated, the historical ammunition — around which ATAC organized.

Armed with unimpeachable historical evidence, ATAC and other activists also mobilized resources from the city of Philadelphia and the United States Congress to design and build the installation. U.S. Representatives Chaka Fattah and Robert Brady, both of whom represent Philadelphia districts, secured an amendment to the Interior Department's 2003 budget forcing the National Park Service to develop plans for an "appropriate commemoration" of the nine enslaved Africans. Then, in October of 2003, Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street responded to ATAC's zealous solicitation of his support by pledging $1.5 million to jumpstart the project. Finally, in August of 2005, Representatives Fattah and Brady won $3.6 million of federal support to build the completed design.

This experience proves absolutely that not only do activists need history professionals with their learning and training but also that history professionals need activists with their visibility and outspokenness. Together, professionals and activists did in Philadelphia what many thought impossible — they nudged, pushed, forced, and otherwise persuaded the powers that be to "do the right thing." The more that history professionals, with their extensive resources, seek out, embrace, and utilize the passion of activists, the sooner we will all be learning history that is relevant, inclusive, bold, and fresh.

 

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