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Source: Philadelphia Daily News
Date: October 8, 2003
Byline: Barbara Laker

Lawyer on quest to have slaves remembered

Wants memorial at new home of Liberty Bell

IF YOU ask Michael Coard, his story began nearly 200 years ago when people like Nat Turner led one of the strongest slave rebellions of the early 1800s.

Now, Coard, a Center City lawyer and civil-rights activist, says he's just trying to finish the last leg of the journey.

"I'm a midget standing on the shoulders of giants," he said, referring to "the top five" black leaders — Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"They laid the foundation. It's like running a 1,000-mile race. These folks have already run 999 miles and simply handed me the baton to walk the last mile," said Coard, leader of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition.

"After they've walked, climbed and clawed their way, I have the easy part."

These days his part is at the Liberty Bell, which is scheduled tomorrow to move 963 feet to its new home along the east side of Sixth Street between Market and Chestnut.

Coard, 38, is urging Independence National Historical Park to place a permanent marker and footprint at the new site to honor the eight slaves held there by President George Washington.

Park Superintendent Mary Bomar has been in negotiations with Coard for some time. She did not return several phone messages from the Daily News, but Coard says she has agreed to a "posting" near the site.

"It doesn't go as far as we'd like," he said.

Coard's Avenging the Ancestors Coalition plans to lead a protest at 1 p.m. tomorrow at 6th and Market. "On the outside, we'll be raising hell. On the inside, we'll be raising issues," Coard said.

To ignore slave quarters when they're five feet from the Liberty Bell Center entrance is unjust, he argues.

"People who enter should know they're crossing hallowed ground."

Coard says he's presented the Park Service with a 1785 map showing the slave quarters, and 1790 correspondence between Washington and his chief secretary in which the slaves quarters are discussed.

The Park Service, however, has a 1798 insurance policy which does not mention the slave quarters, Coard said.

"Those opposed to our group think we're giving George Washington a black eye. But we're describing American history. We're telling truth, the whole truth," he said.

"This is about history, not mythology," he said.

Single with no children, Coard says he can devote more time to his work which he describes this way:

"Avenging the ancestors is a mission. Being a lawyer is a job."

Those who've known him for decades say he's passionate, committed and tenacious.

"Michael Coard is driven and committed to his cause," said State Representative LeAnna M. Washington.

"It's a very real dedication," said Docta Shock of "He believes in his causes. He gets the word out and he's very genuine. We need more people like him. He's willing to protest and he's got a lot to lose."

Coard says his mission to right America's wrongs started as a child growing up on Opal Street near 20th in North Philadelphia.

"I must have been about 12 or 13 and this mentally retarded young black man was shot and killed by police. He was an innocent guy," he said.

"I knew then I wanted to do something and the best way to do it is through law," he said.

He graduated from Ohio State University College of Law in 1985. As president of the Black Law Students Association there, he compelled Ohio State to divest all its funds from American companies doing business with the apartheid government in South Africa.

"I'm most proud of that," he said.

"He's an extremely intelligent guy and very ethical," said Common Pleas Judge Gregory Smith, who has known Coard since law school.

Coard is now an attorney with the Bowser Law Center and is representing the mother of Donta Dawson in her fight to file a private criminal complaint alleging murder. Dawson was 19 and unarmed when he was shot in the head in 1998 by a Philadelphia police officer.

Coard also hosts "The Radio Courtroom" show on WHAT 1340-AM, and teaches criminal justice at Temple University's Pan African Studies program. For fun, he teaches "Hip Hop 101" at Temple.

But, this week, his focus is on the last mile.

"I truly believe everyone is here for a reason," he said. "The ancestors sent me here to do something. The driving force comes from them. I'm their messenger."


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