At an impassioned and sometimes raucous public meeting last night, Independence National Historical Park unveiled the preliminary site design for its elaborate new setting for the Liberty Bell.
The design, shown to more than 200 who packed the auditorium of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, represents the park's effort to tell the intertwining story of freedom and slavery in America, in Philadelphia and in the very home of the nation's first president.
But if park officials and designers thought the evening would proceed with vocal appreciation for their efforts, they were wrong.
"You are missing a lot of history here," said Charles Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro American Collection at Temple University, citing names and stories of those enslaved by Washington.
At several points, others in the largely black audience accused park officials of duplicity and racism. There were questions about the funding for the $4.5 million design (there is none), about participation of African Americans in the process of design and construction, and about the language used to describe both those enslaved and those who did the enslaving.
Through it all, park officials appeared, by turns, glum, chalky-faced and frustrated. At the conclusion of the two-hour meeting, acting park superintendent Dennis Reidenbach said he appreciated the passion on display.
"It's all about us working together," he said. "This project must happen... . We want to work to make it happen."
The design focuses on the house where the country's first two presidents lived and conducted the nation's business, and where George Washington presided over a large household that included several enslaved Africans. John Adams, his successor, opposed slavery.
Their residence, the so-called Presidents' House or Executive Mansion, once situated near the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets, represented the heart of the executive branch of government during the 1790s.
If constructed as now conceived, the design would feature information about the house, the early presidency, Washington's enslaved Africans and white indentured servants, the larger world of Philadelphia's African Americans, and the institution of slavery itself.
All would be arrayed across a 12,000-square-foot area fronting Market Street, north of the new $12.6 million Liberty Bell pavilion, now under construction.
Michael Coard, a leader of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a group that has pushed for a slavery memorial at the site, urged those at the meeting not to "get sidetracked" by funding and other issues.
"Keep your eyes on the prize," he said. "The prize is a monument. The prize is a memorial. The prize is a commemorative installation."
"I am suspicious and cynical about anything as pejorative... as what I've heard tonight," said activist Reggie Bryant. "None of this [design] happened until there was great pressure applied... . The promises made here are tantamount to those made in the back seat at a drive-in movie."
The proposed design marks a radical turnaround for park officials. Only a year ago, they had no plans to discuss slavery at the Liberty Bell site or to commemorate the Presidents' House. But controversy broke out in March when it was reported that the new Liberty Bell pavilion would be located in the vicinity of Washington's slave quarters.
After considerable public debate, the Park Service agreed to rework the Liberty Bell exhibits so they would incorporate extensive discussion of slavery.
Congress then directed the Park Service to come up with an appropriate commemoration of Washington's slaves.
The new design was conceived the Olin Partnership of Philadelphia and Vincent Ciulla Design of Brooklyn.