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Source: Philadelphia Daily News
Date: July 29, 2003
Byline: Ron Goldwyn

In small bits, slave history is being told

Daily tour shows another side of Colonial Phila.

Park ranger Terry Brown's underground railroad tour around Independence National Historical Park is short on landmarks — they're all gone.

But Brown pulls no punches with vivid accounts of George Washington's run-for-freedom slaves Hercules and Oney, black abolitionist William Still, and a man who had himself mailed in a box to Philadelphia freedom.

The tour, which began June 28 as the city's first-ever daily tour devoted to Philadelphia black history, points to a vacuum that the modest African-American heritage tour industry is eager to fill.

Tailoring tours to the black experience, the operators say, is a matter of getting it right as well as making it pay.

"[There's] definitely room for expansion, but you must know what you're talking about," said Mazie Ford of Ford Tours. "You can't say the wrong things because people do go back and look things up."

Ford's heritage tourism, she said, includes costumed skits "to take visitors back to the 18th century."

Sandra Steward of Great American Tours noted, "We say America was born here. Our African-American history was also born here."

Most of her business is by contract with large tour groups, and there aren't enough of them, she said. As for telling the black history story, she said, the city "is not doing it very well at all."

The NAACP's decision to bring its summer 2004 convention and 15,000 delegates to Philadelphia could help those tour operators increase their business, says Tanya Hall of the Multicultural Affairs Congress.

In addition, she said, the NAACP could "jumpstart" Independence National Historical Park on its interpretation of slavery in America.

The Multicultural Congress, an arm of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, has already been doing that. So has a band of historians and the Avenging Our Ancestors Coalition.

Hall insists that keeping the minority tourism market — estimated at almost $1.5 billion, counting conventions and private visits — depends on doing history right. She's been nurturing the small but developing black heritage tour industry while keeping heat on Independence Park.

The NAACP won't be the biggest convention in Philadelphia next year. But with its high profile and activism, Hall sees the NAACP as an ally in forcing park officials "to get their ducks in order" in telling slavery's story.

In particular, she said George Washington's slaveholding needs more attention. As president, he had eight slaves on land that is part of the new Liberty Bell pavilion that opens in October.

Terry Brown, one of six interpretive rangers who lead the new underground railroad tour, is doing his part.

"If you look across the street and put your imagination together," Brown told 14 listeners recently, they could visualize the site at 6th and Market streets where Washington — as president in the 1790s — owned Hercules and Oney Judge.

Both escaped for the taste of freedom, the ranger noted, even though they had "the best clothing, living in the best house in America." His point: there was no such thing as a "contented" slave.

At 5th and Arch, Brown pointed to the United States Mint building and said that was where William Still, a slave's son and abolitionist leader, once had his office.

"Don't forget that name, because some day you're going to see a statue to that man," he said.

Brown's history-by-name included Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who had himself mailed from Richmond, Va., "this side up." Still was the man who opened the box.

The tour is a free walkup offering at 2 p.m. at the visitors' center on Independence Mall. It drew 71 people on a recent Sunday.

John Brandt, a principal and former history teacher from Saginaw, Mich., said after a recent tour that the story of the underground railroad is rarely told across the U.S. but is "something I want my kids to hear about."

Tajmah Kelley, of Mt. Airy, brought two Georgia relatives, plus her mom and son, on the tour. She's done African-American heritage tours in the South and welcomes a home-grown version.

"It was very helpful and insightful for myself and my 8-year-old son to see about our city," she said. "It's good the truth is being told. We should have more. There is so much here."

As for Washington's slave-holding, she said, "I think we need a little more than just a plaque."

Lawyer Michael Coard of the Ancestors coalition makes that point. He says America's slave heritage must be an integral part of its independence story at the cradle of liberty, not at an off-park site that most visitors will skip.

Hall said she welcomed the underground railroad tour. But she wants an African-American firm involved in design of the slavery story at the Liberty Bell.

Spokesman Phil Sheridan said the park has revised and expanded its slavery story into a $4.5 million plan but "we don't have the money to retain anybody at this point." He said federal procurement rules might affect "whether you can earmark or exclude" non-black design firms.

 

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