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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: January 17, 2003
Byline: Editorial

The ring of truth

Plan should do a good job of telling two tales of a country - liberty and slavery.

Linking that most familiar Philadelphia story - the struggle for American independence and freedom - with the harsh and lesser-known reality of slave-owning founding fathers won't be a stroll in the park.

But it's a story that must be told - especially since it played out within a block of Independence Hall.

The good news is that it's taking shape impressively - if decades late - at Independence National Historical Park. On Wednesday, the latest plans and designs were unveiled for the entrance to the new Liberty Bell exhibit at Sixth and Chestnut Streets.

Both within and just outside the $12.6 million bell pavilion debuting this year, the interwoven historical facts of freedom and slavery will be explored in far greater detail than ever before. (As plans evolve, though, the design should be tweaked to yield less fortress-like structures.)

In the fall, National Park Service officials revealed details of the reworked bell exhibit itself. Visitors are to learn in detail of the old statehouse bell's antislavery link as a symbol adopted by 19th-century abolitionists - once just a passing mention.

This week's presentation to a meeting of 200 people at the African American Museum in Philadelphia portrayed the most troubling historical irony. That is, the fact that both slave and master lived under one roof in a mansion at Fifth and Market Streets.

The slave owner was President George Washington. His captives, eight household slaves. The setting: the nation's first White House in the decade that Philadelphia served as the nation's capital.

Not a story told much, if at all, in the decades since the park's creation. Enter the makeover of Independence Mall, with construction of the new pavilion, a visitor center and the National Constitution Center.

Credit historians, African American activists, and citizens with insisting that the Park Service launch the present effort to "fill in the blanks," as an advisor, Rutgers University history professor Clement A. Price, describes it.

For all their wrongheaded efforts to impose heavy-handed security measures at America's birthplace, Park Service officials have sketched out ambitious ideas for honoring the African American history at the site.

Through outdoor exhibits, murals, and statuary on the site of the Washington house, the Park Service hopes to convey the breadth of black experience in the 18th-century city. With free-born blacks and freed slaves living and working here, setting up the first churches and other institutions, 18th century Philadelphia is viewed by historians as the African American capital of the young nation. Such a rich past deserves retelling today.

In devising the exhibits, the Park Service met a congressional mandate. Now, Congress should pitch in to cover the $4.5 million cost. Teaching all the lessons of America's early years is well worth the expense.

 

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