Thanks to historians Edward Lawler Jr. and Gary Nash, we now know exactly why the ground at Sixth and Market Streets is so important to our understanding of American history. It is the site of the house where the first two presidents lived and worked when Philadelphia was the capital of our fledgling democracy. But the place is also, in a painful contradiction, America's first federally subsidized slave quarters.
The National Park Service, which is responsible for that corner, has now processed and accepted these facts after much initial resistance. But recognizing the site's importance and knowing what to do about it are two different things. There are distressing signs that the Park Service hasn't a clue about how to proceed.
Hard as it is to believe, there is no major federal memorial to mark the abominable institution of slavery anywhere in our country, although the number of state memorials is growing, mainly in the South. While the Netherlands, which was a big slave trader in the colonial period, dedicated a national monument in Amsterdam to the victims of slavery this summer, a long-standing proposal to build an African American history museum on the Mall in Washington has gone nowhere.
It was Lawler who last year correctly identified the location and floor plan of the house where George Washington served his presidency between 1790 and 1797, and was served largely by a household staff of enslaved Africans. When Lawler laid that plan over a map of Independence Mall, he realized that the slaves' sleeping quarters were located at the entrance to the new Liberty Bell Center, an astonishing and symbolic juxtaposition.
Now, because of the convergence of events at Independence Mall, Philadelphia has the opportunity to take the initiative - something it rarely does - and build the first federal memorial to the legacy of slavery.
The Park Service has made some halfhearted moves in this direction. It has hired a team of landscape architects, including the Laurie Olin Partnership in Philadelphia, to produce a design for the site of Washington's residence. But when their design was presented to the public last month at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, the park's acting superintendent, Dennis Reidenbach, responded to questions with such extreme bureaucratic indifference that the audience became abusive. This project needs passion, commitment and federal money to succeed.
Philadelphia has the story. Philadelphia has the mall. It has the perfect location to illustrate the contradictions inherent in our nation's founding principles: liberty and justice for all, slavery for some. The site sits right between Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center, due to open this summer.
Building such a memorial would be cathartic in many ways. More than a century after emancipation, our country is still wounded by the legacy of slavery. Just as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington helped Americans come to terms with that conflict, whether they participated in it or not, the slavery memorial could do the same for this shared chapter of our history.
If the memorial is done right, it would help Philadelphia reassert itself as a center of African American cultural life, a position it held until the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Even while the Founding Fathers were writing slavery into the Constitution, Philadelphia had a vigorous community of free blacks, many of whom lived on the blocks that now make up Independence Mall.
The memorial would put that rich history on the map. It would add to Philadelphia's wealth of tourist attractions. The drama inherent in a successful memorial might even prevent the mall from being overwhelmed by text panels that will bore tourists to tears.
The design, which has not yet received memorial status from Congress, is still evolving. Because of the site's complex double history, the Olin Partnership's Jean Weston and Brian Hanes have struggled to tell two stories side by side. The floor plan of the house would be outlined in paving stones. Along Market Street, designers want to install a glass panel etched with images of Washington and some of his slaves.
The slavery portion of the project would be closer to the corner of Sixth Street. Laurie Olin envisions a serpentine wall flowing out of the bell center toward the corner. It would be etched with more text, to tell the story of slavery in general and Washington's slaves in particular.
But there would be several breaks in the wall, which would be fitted with artwork. The current proposal is for 16-foot-high realistic statues of slaves - figures that risk sinking into kitsch. Altogether, the project is estimated to cost $4.5 million.
The serpentine wall is meant to show the progress from slavery to freedom, but there is a danger it could give the appearance of a literal wall, with African Americans on the outside looking in.
Unfortunately, Olin said, the statues were conceived partly as a security measure. By occupying the gaps in the wall, they form part of a secure perimeter fence that the Park Service is planning for the first block of the mall. But turning the statues of slaves into security guards only sends more unfortunate messages.
Indeed, the Park Service seems more concerned about fencing in America's birthplace of democracy than about dealing with its complex history. But both the mall and the slavery memorial will succeed only when there is freedom and liberty for all who visit the site.