LAST weekend, my wife and I loaded our three sons into the car and headed for Center City. We wanted to see firsthand what we'd been reading about regarding 6th and Market streets.
The stories said that, in mid-March, the National Park Service began working with local archaeologists to unearth the remains of what's called the President's House, next to the Liberty Bell. That's where George Washington and John Adams lived and worked when Philadelphia was the nation's capital from 1790 to 1800. The President's House was knocked down in 1832 and retail stores built on the site. The stores were demolished in 1952 and the land became part of Independence Mall.
It was here that President Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 making it illegal to aid a slave's escape and insisting that escaped slaves be returned to their owners. And it was here that Washington himself had nine slaves, including his legendary chef, Hercules, who escaped from the house to freedom in 1797.
On a makeshift construction platform above the dig, we found a small group surrounding George Newhauser, a park ranger. He explained that we were staring into a pit, about 60 by 90 feet, where archaeologists have uncovered foundations as deep as 10 feet below street level.
He pointed out the rear wall of the main President's House at the corner of 6th and Market, and directed our attention toward a bow in the foundation, which he said was the back of the house, and the precursor for the oval rooms in the White House and probably the Oval Office itself.
We also saw the foundation of the kitchen building and a deep basement under it, which was connected to the main house by an underground passageway so those using it — mostly Washington's slaves — could move between the kitchen and main house without going outside.
In short, a place where slaves lived and worked was found right at the entrance of the new Liberty Bell Center. A building constructed to house the symbol of American freedom is on top of a slave's bedroom.
Our sons, who spend too much time indoors, online and playing electronic games, were rapt, at least for a few minutes. To see with your own eyes the history of the nation, including one aspect that is literally and figuratively the low point of our country's existence, can't be duplicated on a computer screen.
HISTORY comes to life at 6th and Market. To see the outline of the walls that housed Washington and his household and to imagine the people who lived within is far more valuable than viewing it on video or TV.
A few days later, inspired by what we'd seen, I caught up with Jed Levin, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, to learn more. I told him of my visit and my pleasant surprise at the level of interest that I, and others who visited, had in his work.
"The key reason we excavated this site was overwhelming public interest and frankly demand that we uncover parts of our history, our complex history, that haven't always been told. And so that's always been sort of at the heart of what we're doing and why we're doing it," he told me.
No wonder the public interest in the site has led to weekend visiting hours and caused officials to reconsider how to proceed.
The current plan to build over the excavation for a commemoration would seem to need a redesign. Backfilling what we were seeing there is tantamount to covering the tracks of an important, if unpleasant, part of American history. It isn't about white guilt — it's about preservation.
Levin said, "I'm an archaeologist. I dig it up, other people decide what to do with it.
"And the other thing to keep in mind is that the plan for the commemoration, which I think is a very innovative, interpretive display to explain the site to people, was basically worked out long before we began excavation.
"That's why nobody knew what we would find. And, right now, many people in the National Park Service at the city level and also many of our visitors are talking about: Well, what do we do now? And we'll see what emerges from that."
Levin estimates that 15,000 have visited the site, and says the crowds are only getting larger.
My 11-year-old son has a pretty good idea.
"Dad, they should put a glass floor on top so everyone can come and take a look and leave history in place." I hope the decision-makers heed his advice. *
Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5:30-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.