"And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
The Philadelphia Inquirer offered a wonderful four-part series last week examining how the stories of freedom told at Independence National Historical Park have expanded to accurately include the reality of slavery, the original (and paradoxical) limitations on "freedom and justice for all" as understood by the Founders and a developing nation, the early freedom struggles of African Americans rooted in a community now buried under Independence Mall, and how the "Liberty Bell" actually received its name from the abolitionist movement.
For years there were people, including Park Service employees, who believed that the history of African Americans in the fledgling nation needed to be substantially included, particularly since the Independence National Historical site has so much African American history associated with it. As someone who grew up in the Philadelphia area and visited the Park countless times, beginning in my childhood, I can testify to the absence of such history in the dominant narrative shared with generations at the Mall.
A great turning point took place in 2002, when plans began to build a new Liberty Bell Pavilion on the site of what what had once been the President's House (the country's first "White House"), where George Washington and John Adams lived and served during their presidencies.
The Pavilion would be built over the old slave quarters of the house. The discussion and struggle over the project's future resulted in the archaeological excavation of the house in 2007. The foundation and basement of the house's kitchen were unearthed, south of the main building, along with an underground passage through which the slaves moved from the kitchen to the main building, out of view. Nearby, above ground, was a stateroom with a bow window where President Washington would greet visiting dignitaries.
Thousands flocked to see the excavation and all it uncovered. Karen Warrington, a member of the project's committee of historians, said that viewing the site evoked "those people reaching up out of the soil, telling their story."
The names of Washington's slaves were now known to the public: Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal servant; Hercules, the President's chef; Austin; a stable worker; Giles; a driver or footman; Paris, a stable worker; Richmond, Hercules' son; Moll, a nanny for the Washington children; Joe, a coachman; and Christopher Sheels, Washington's personal servant.
Oney Judge's story is compelling. According to the framers of the Constitution she was three-fifth's of a person. She was born at Mt. Vernon, and brought to Philadelphia as a sixteen-year-old. Judge labored in service to the first lady for several years until she learned that the Washingtons were planning to give her away as a wedding gift. She escaped north to New Hamphshire. The President, who had signed the Fugitive Slave Act criminalizing escape and any effort to assist escaped slaves, was reportedely very upset and commissioned the Treasury Secretary to find her. When Judge tried to negotiate her return with the President in exchange for her ultimate freedom he refused. Even after leaving the presidency he sent a family member to bring her back. Judge lived a poor and difficult — but free — life in New Hampshire for the rest of her days, her "fugitive slave" status legally remaining the entire time. Washington's other slaves were freed at his death.
The portrait of George Washington that emerges is fuller, more conflicted, and more complex than traditional historical renderings. Much like the nation whose first President he was. Michael Zuckerman, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says: "This story is full of conflict . . it rings right. It rings true . . .It is so much more dramatic, so much more redemptive, so much more inspiring, than anything we got out of that white, alabaster saint."
Back in 2000, a great achaeological dig preceded the construction of the National Constitution Center, two blocks north of the Liberty Bell Pavilion. What was unearthed , then and in a subsequent dig, was evidence of a vibrant community of at least sixty free blacks , living among anti-slavery Quakers and others, and forming the core of a new freedom movement. As the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was meeting, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other former slaves were forming the Free African Society. The Inquirer articles lift up other stories.
"The whole concept of sacred ground and the creation of sacred space has been extended by what's happened," said Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph's University; "We're not just looking for history. We're not just looking for information on free blacks or slavery. We're going deep into discovering ourselves as a nation."
It strikes me that as a people we are experiencing a kind of spiritual archaeology in this process. It is a revealing, an unveiling. Those of us in the Christian faith might understand this as a manifestation of our being delivered, not just individually but collectively. The fullness of our origins, our history, our relationships to one another (recognized or unrecognized), and our sin (distance from God and our neighbor) are being claimed by God's all-encompassing love and saving power. The first of the Inquirer articles is titled, "Remaking History," and talks about how the stories are changing. I humbly suggest it might better be titled, "Revealing Our-Story." The narrative is transformed, and it is tranform-ing. It is we who are being set free to change, with God's help, claiming the whole story as our story, and recognizing the renewed promise of personal and corporate transformation that is grace and gift to us. We have been equipped to engage what the United Church of Christ calls "A Sacred Conversation on Race." Our response will be a sign of God's Spirit moving among us, and a hopeful sign during the coming electoral season where all our struggles with race, even those we have buried, will be called to the surface. Those of us who have previously mistaken privilege for true freedom are being offered a life-giving alternative.
Joe Becton, a National Park Ranger, now conducts Underground Railroad walking tours. Visitors to the Liberty Bell now hear about slavery, abolitionism, civil rights, women's rights, and immigrant struggles. Visitors to the Mall and surrounding historical area will increasingly hear fuller stories about the Founders and the origins of our beloved nation, slavery in civil and religious life, the growth of the free African community and the struggle to abolish slavery, the Underground Railroad, the enormous struggles by members of the local community in recent years to conduct these excavations and unearth these stories and tell them as an integral part of the fabric of who we are, the desire that these stories never be buried again (physically, emotionally, or spiritually).
Late in her life, Oney Judge was asked whether, given the poverty and hardships she endured in her years in New Hampshire after escaping the slavery of the President's House, she might have been sorry she left the relative comfort of the Washington domicile. She replied: "No. I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means." May we all have such trust as God delivers us!