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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: February 13, 2003
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Liberty Bell site plan to show liberty denied

When construction began more than a year ago on the Liberty Bell Center, it seemed unthinkable that a new home would mean a new story for the preeminent icon of American freedom.

But that was when virtually no one knew that the bell would be located steps away from where President George Washington once quartered enslaved Africans behind the long-demolished presidential mansion.

Place, as it turned out, mattered.

After months of public clamor and consultations with historians and community leaders, Independence National Historical Park officials have finally unveiled an ambitious new Liberty Bell site design.

If the design - which is to be presented to Congress next month - is implemented, visitors will be able to see embedded in the ground the outline of the house where the first two U.S. presidents lived and conducted public business.

But they will also be able to see where Washington's enslaved Africans ate their own meals and cooked the president's favorite dishes.

They will learn the stories of those held in bondage and those who escaped. They will learn about those who conducted public business and those who made that public business possible - not only the enslaved Africans, but European indentured servants and paid help as well.

By showcasing the house and those who lived and worked there, designers are able to launch visitors into exhibitions and commemorative installations that highlight the system of slavery, the birth and growth of Philadelphia's free black community, and the rise of abolitionism.

"This is all part of the story of the Liberty Bell," said Dennis R. Reidenbach, acting park superintendent. Last summer, in the wake of controversy, Congress directed the Park Service to "appropriately commemorate" Washington's enslaved Africans.

"I think the design team has come up with something extremely compelling," Reidenbach said.

Some of the new design themes involving slavery and black America "may indeed inspire Americans," said Clement Price, a professor of history at Rutgers University in Newark who participated in the design process.

"Some [themes] may indeed trouble Americans, and some may indeed inspire wonderment," he continued. "Why are we giving it so much attention? We should."

Not all of those at the public unveiling of the design last month were satisfied with what they heard. There were questions about funding and process as well as the level of commitment from the Interior Department and the National Park Service.

But the conceptual change represented by the design - as yet no actual text has been written, no images selected, and no artwork commissioned - seemed profound, as some speakers noted.

"We are committed to doing what we are proposing," Reidenbach said.

The Park Service's approach to slavery has gone "from denying to designing," said lawyer Michael Coard, a leader of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which has been urging commemoration of Washington's slaves.

"We forced the most powerful government in the world to move from denying George Washington's slaves to designing commemorations of some of these same people," Coard said. "That is historic. It's actually earth-shattering."

Gone from Independence Mall will be the story of the Liberty Bell as the embodiment of a universally free and unblemished America. Gone will be the idea that the Founding Fathers were as pure as their most idealistic rhetoric.

If the $4.5 million design is implemented - and officials emphasize it is in the early-concept stage and has no funding yet - the Liberty Bell will remain an inspiring icon of liberty, designers maintained. But its symbolism will be enlarged and enriched, becoming a complex web representing freedoms achieved and freedoms denied.

To achieve this, the park and its design team - Laurie Olin Partnership and Vincent Ciulla Design, with the active assistance of Price, the historian - met several times with community leaders, such as Coard, and a number of historians and listened to their suggestions and concerns.

After those sessions, designers recognized the need to commemorate the actual mansion where Washington and then John Adams lived during their presidencies in the 1790s.

The mansion, known as the President's House or the Executive Mansion, was located near the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets. It was torn down in the 1830s.

The design envisions the footprint of the front portion of the house represented by stone paving. This opens up possibilities to tell the stories of all who lived there - the two presidents and their families, as well as their servants, and Washington's eight enslaved Africans. (John Adams vehemently opposed slavery, which is also part of the story.)

Visitors will be able to see the actual spot- it will be delineated with the Presidential Seal - where Washington and Adams stood to receive foreign emissaries and official delegations. Steps away will be the outlined servants' hall and kitchen, where Hercules, Washington's African chef, created his fabled meals before he escaped to freedom in 1797.

The dining area will feature artwork commemorating those held in bondage at the house.

The other major organizing element of the 12,000-square-foot site, which occupies the area from Market Street south along Sixth Street to the entrance of the new Liberty Bell Center, will be a large serpentine wall.

This wall, an extension of a similar wall inside the center, will bifurcate the site - in the same way that slavery and race have split American society.

Text and graphics running along the east side of the curved wall will tell the chronological story of slavery and emancipation.

On the west side of the wall will be the story of free Africans in Philadelphia - the hardships and difficulties, the personalities, the tenacity, the communities. Visitors will be able to move from the east side to the west side through openings in the wall.

Sculptural installations also will break up the wall. These works - artists need to be selected - will memorialize those enslaved in Philadelphia and the rest of the nation.

Should they be built, park designers believe that they will constitute the first sculptural slavery memorials in the country.

The serpentine wall - and tall piers advancing from the Liberty Bell Center - would provide ample opportunities to personalize the site's big themes: the house and the people, the early presidency, slavery and its aftermath, and the rise of free black Philadelphia.

Here one could find the stories of Hercules the chef and Oney Judge, Martha Washington's maid, both of whom escaped from bondage, and the stories of the presidents themselves.

Facing Market Street, the front of the President's House could well rise again - this time in etched glass or some other translucent material.

This would allow visitors to see what once was - perhaps a state gathering might be etched on the glass, with a ghostly bewigged president, and with powdered and assembled ladies and gentlemen. And it would allow visitors to see through the facade to the servants and slaves quarters beyond, where Hercules and others labored because they had no choice.

 

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