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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: January 4, 2003
Byline: Lorene Cary

Embracing Our History of Slavery

Philadelphia keeps paving over slaves' history. Now, Independence Mall is a focal point.

The Constitution Center's bus depot will allow tourists to drive over the place where James Oronoke Dexter lived. Dexter was a free black man and a member of the Free African Society, Philadelphia's and one of the United States' earliest self-help groups. Because construction has not paused for excavation, the remains of the Dexter family house, with its wealth of buried artifacts, will lie underneath the depot. The buses will drive in, idle, park, drive away. Economic activity will go on, tourism will happen. Folks will pay money for the ride, and for the tours, the books, CDs and pot holders, the cracked little bells. EZ on, EZ off.

Nearby, the new Liberty Bell pavilion will be virtually atop the place where Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels and Oney Judge made up the ever-churning household of enslaved black people who ran away or plotted to run away from or made their peace with life in George and Martha Washington's Philadelphia household. Because of all the fuss that has been made by historians and community groups, a clear account is now available at In addition, the ground on which all these people lived and struggled to create the bold, but flawed, democracy will be marked. Not quite "George Washington slaved here," but tourists should get the point.

In the last few months, protests lodged against the National Park Service's proposed interpretation of our nation's early history at the Constitution Center have been reported. But not, I think, the depth and diversity of frustration and anxiety throughout the city. People I've talked to in North and South and West Philadelphia, in Germantown and Center City, are struggling to understand, communicate with others, analyze, educate themselves, find out what others are doing, and work together.

They come together in meetings, hear out different opinions, seek common ground, interpret their own anger, and discipline it as they try to explain to their children what's happening. Then they look themselves in the mirror, wondering how they can be more powerful and more effective in this war of narratives. Many of them have come together as the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, people who just couldn't stand the idea that the actual place where the nation's ancestors lived would be rolled over. A true representation of this underground resistance would reveal the depth of concern in Philadelphia - and the nation - about the way we regard land and memory, and how we collect, manage, coif and codify the stories of U.S. democracy and freedom.

For this native as for hundreds of thousands of others, that concern goes way back.

I do not remember any mention of slavery in school until second grade. Sometimes that year there were more than 30 of us in class. Our teacher at the Lea School kept what felt like rigid control. For the better part of the year, it seemed, round-faced Marlon stood at the back of the room with his arms outstretched as punishment for some infraction; the girl who sat in front of me had accidents, and by midyear her chair took on the faint, ineradicable scent of urine. To relieve the drudgery, I prayed for the weekly visits of Madame Wynne, our first black teacher, who swept in with her Cleopatra bangs and gorgeous accent to teach French: "Bonjour, mes amis!"

And we looked forward hungrily for the refreshment of class trips to the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Franklin Institute, for art and music and instrumental lessons.

Why and when we had this rare conversation about slavery and freedom, I do not know; slavery was not a standard curriculum item like Indians and Pilgrims in whose honor we made hats that we wore at the end of the day ("Two rows, boys and girls, line up, nobody moves until we have silence"). What I have locked in memory stands out clearly in the year's slide-projection images - as clearly as the classroom radio announcing that President Kennedy had been shot; as clearly as Clarence's perfect smile, Christopher's mummy cartoons, Connie's laughter that came out of either side of her mouth around the forbidden thumb. After trips to Batsto Village in New Jersey with my grandparents, after watching historical movies and hearing my great-grandfather's folktales from a 19th-century childhood in the Caribbean, I wanted to know more about the enslaved people.

How did they live? Did they try to escape? What happened to the children? Who beat whom? What was it like? How did it end?

Popular culture had planted images in my head. I wanted school facts to educate my imagination, which was thin and useless about these ancestors. But there weren't many facts. Our teacher told us that. Just weren't many at all. The problem was that the slavery had happened far away in the South, that most blacks had been illiterate and had left very few records.

What a shame.

My cheeks burned each time I remembered. It was like having relatives who hadn't paid the rent and got themselves evicted from history. Now we couldn't find them. No forwarding address. No phone.

A dozen years later at the University of Pennsylvania, professor Houston A. Baker Jr. quoted Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and challenged us students to find better histories for ourselves than we'd inherited. Jefferson knew, he said, that if black people remembered America's injuries, they would never live in peace with their white neighbors.

And there are facts to be unearthed; there are maps and letters and accounts and lists and daguerreotypes and sketches. Here in Philadelphia, home of one of the largest free black populations in the antebellum years, home of those record-keeping Quakers and the indefatigable William Still, everybody left records. Of all the books I discovered while writing The Price of a Child, Gary B. Nash's Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community 1720-1840 most fully revealed the extent to which slavery in the north, here in our city, right in our lovely, historic houses, was chronicled - and the memory of it suppressed. It's from Nash that I began to learn the complexity of our city's relationship with liberty.

We the Philadelphians were slaves, indentures, free, poor and wealthy, immigrant and native peoples. In the middle of the 18th century, a ship dropped anchor in the Delaware and its cargo of 500 people from Africa was sold in three days. Quakers owned slaves and then agonized over what to do about it. The occasional free black owned slaves. Some people who were enslaved wore rib-and-neck shackles that connected to a long hooklike hanger that suspended a bell over their heads. Anywhere they walked, while padlocked into this device, the bell would ring. In the peculiar cheek-by-jowl city version of slavery, it took many kinds of force to keep people from running away.

After the British sailed up the river and occupied the city unopposed, loyalist Joseph Wharton was host for a thank-God-you-showed-up farewell dinner, with 24 slaves wearing brightly colored Turkish getups serving the diners. Absalom Jones, later the first black Episcopal priest, bought his wife out of slavery so their children would be free. The couple worked predawn and late-night hours for years to buy him out. But then, because the Revolution cut housing values in half and they had a once-in-a-lifetime chance at home ownership, they took Absalom's freedom money, bought a house on Pine Street, and began to save all over again to buy him. A pregnant young woman's liberator mailed her to Philadelphia in a crate care of General Delivery, then rode North himself to collect her and send her on to freedom in Canada. After 1850, slave catchers in Philadelphia were paid federal bounties for capturing presumed escaping slaves from the South; if a slave was returned to a master in the South, the bounty was $10, otherwise $5.

Learning these things gave me a crazy kind of hope - "every hope," as Fanny Jackson Coppin would say, she who was bought out of slavery at 2 by an aunt, became a classics scholar at Oberlin, and in 1869 the leader of the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney University) after its politically active principal was gunned down on Bainbridge Street. Not knowing had made me insecure in ways I did not even realize. Learning these facts about the common life of common people, like learning labor history, for instance, or the history of other immigrants, funky and whacked and complicated as our history suddenly became, gave me what I imagine to be the relief of an orphan who finally receives the birth-family medical history. Things started to make sense.

One example: When I grew up and we stopped using the word Negro and called ourselves black, I assumed, like the rest of my generation, that we'd made a linguistic move toward militancy and self-determination. Colored, which my grandparents used, was so beyond the pale, as it were, that we didn't even consider it. It was an embarrassment to see Colored Methodist churches or CME Zion.

But I didn't know about the American Colonization Society, a group of white men whose desire was to consolidate slavery in the early 19th century by shipping out of the country to a West African colony all the free black people, people who had completely muddled the original formula of slavery that made race equal caste. We won't even go into the arrogance of going back to Africa, where the slave trade was tapering off, to carve out a colony without the natives' say-so.

Here in Philadelphia, the ACS talked to a handful of the most powerful leaders in the Free African Society, of which James Oronoke Dexter was a member - he who lived where the bus depot's going - to suggest the scheme. Within days, Dexter; Mother Bethel's lion-hearted founder, Richard Allen; Absalom Jones; William Gray, and others had alerted the African community in Philadelphia. Three tousand of the five thousand African descendants living in town around 1820 gathered at Mother Bethel Church to register their rejection of the plan. Although it might be swell to have their own digs, out from under the thumb of white America, they would not go. They understood precisely how the plan would alter the changing nature of race and class in America and they would not be made pawns. They declared that enslaved people were their brothers, if not by blood, then "by consanguinity" and they would not leave them "bereft."

Within a year, Nash tells us, free black people organized a national convention. One of their actions was to begin changing the names of institutions - from African to colored. It was a way to tell the slavery lobbies in the North and South that these black and brown people were staying, that they were committed to this place, and would stick it out, and agitate, and protest to change the very structure of America until that structure honored them and honored its own idealistic ambitions, until they were counted as five-fifths human and their children had an opportunity to compete for America's wealth and its governance.

I suspect that I'd have been even more outraged about the Park Service's insistence on building over the residences of James Dexter and of Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels and Oney Judge had I not already learned about Philadelphia's long history of cavalier treatment of its ancestors. A map of 19th-century graveyards at the Pennsylvania Historical Society was accompanied by a narrative written so that future generations would not forget where people had been buried. While reading this narrative and others, I discovered the triangular piece of ground at 46th and Girard that served as the model for the cemetery to which the Quick family in The Price of a Child take their new fugitive and her children. On the map it is called Olive Cemetery and, in precise handwriting, it is marked "Colored." Many graveyards, some several-plot vest-pockets, were removed to make way as the city's population doubled from 1830 to 1860, and then grew as much again in the 30 years after the Civil War. One of those was Olive. Curious about it, I went to the place, holding in my hand a photocopy of the map. There was the exact triangle of land, bounded on three sides by streets exactly as pictured, but on the land was a school - Blankenberg, which my mother and my aunts attended.

Whether each and every body was removed and reburied, I don't know. But I do know that when some of the old downtown graveyards were emptied for development, it was not possible to find a family to relocate each headstone. Some of the stones, the records tell us, were used to shore up the banks of the Schuylkill.

I like to think of them, like Buddhist prayer wheels, these unclaimed ancestors, holding back the tide for us, leaching the memory of their names silently into the water that sustains our green and half-awakened valley.


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