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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: March 24, 2002
Byline: Stephan Salisbury and Inga Saffron, Inquirer Staff Writers

Echoes of slavery at Liberty Bell site

Historians say George Washington kept slaves there. They've asked to have the site studied, but the Park Service says no.

In a year, when visitors enter the new $9 million pavilion to view the Liberty Bell, they will tread directly over ground where George Washington's slaves toiled, slept, suffered and plotted escape during the eight years of his presidency.

When the pavilion was designed, no one knew the exact location of the old President's House, where Washington and successor John Adams lived from 1790 until 1800.

And no one apparently considered the possibility that the pavilion would be on the soil where Washington kept his human property.

Now that soil is yielding caustic debate.

New historic research shows the presence of slaves at the heart of one of the nation's most potent symbols of freedom.

The National Park Service says the Liberty Bell is its own story, and Washington's slaves are a different one better told elsewhere.

But some historians insist slavery is an integral part of this piece of ground.

They are irate that the Park Service has refused to halt construction and excavate the site, to hunt for artifacts that would give a more complete picture of the nation's birth and slavery's role in it.

Mayor Street has joined those critics.

"This is brand-new information to the city," Street spokesman Frank Keel said Friday, referring to the relation of the new bell site to slave quarters.

"We think the issue is too important and too sensitive to ignore," he said. "The city is not about to let this slide by."

Street wants "to begin a very earnest dialogue with the Park Service" about how to address the issue of slavery on Independence Mall, Keel said.

Park Service officials could not be reached late Friday for comment on Street's views. They said in earlier interviews that the Park Service was not distorting the nation's past.

"I wouldn't paint the Park Service as doing anything bad with history," said Phil Sheridan, a Park Service spokesman. "Obviously we knew there was slavery. Obviously we know there were Africans living there. We are following what the vast majority of people wanted on that block — interpretation of the Liberty Bell."

In a less-racially charged debate, other critics are raising another issue about the pavilion. They complain that the Park Service's plans do not adequately commemorate the fact that the pavilion will be built on the site of Philadelphia's presidential residence.

The entire debate was set in motion by the painstaking archival research of local historian Edward Lawler Jr. Lawler — for the first time — has mapped the location of the house.

Moreover, he produced a floor plan showing the slave quarters built on Washington's instructions — quarters that were at what will be the entrance to the new pavilion.

Historians such as Gary Nash of the University of California at Los Angeles and Randall Miller of St. Joseph's University suggest that the Park Service is literally burying an unpleasant past by not allowing an archaeological dig of the area.

In the absence of that, they say, the Park Service should at least mount an exhibition telling the complete — and messy — story of the site.

Park Service officials, however, say their mission is to showcase the Liberty Bell.

Beyond that, they say, federal policy bars excavation unless a site is threatened with destruction, which is not the case with the slave quarters.

Privately, some park officials say that as construction on the pavilion has begun at Sixth and Market Streets — after innumerable public meetings to discuss the design and focus of the renovated mall — it is too late to turn back. The design will not be altered; the site will not be excavated.

When the new pavilion site was selected and the building design was approved several years ago — all part of a major overhaul of the Independence Mall area — the precise location of the President's House and its utility buildings was not known.

In a lengthy discussion of the President's House in the January 2002 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Lawler, an independent historian, demonstrated that Washington's slaves were housed in the stable area at the back of the house.

That area is within a few feet of what will be the new location of the bell, which at the time of the American Revolution hung in Independence Hall.

The bell is now most commonly seen as a symbol of the Revolution, but it became famous only after abolitionists fighting to rid the nation of slavery adopted it as a symbol of their cause.

In the 1840s, opponents of human bondage used the inscription incised on the bell as a rallying cry: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof."

It is that juxtaposition of slave site and bell, Lawler wrote, that "will echo as one approaches the new building on Independence Mall."

But will it echo if few are aware of the archaeological and historical facts?

Miller, who teaches American history, points out that the Park Service rangers remind visitors of how the bell was embraced by the abolitionist movement.

Now, Miller says, the Park Service seems to be turning its back on its own telling of the history of its greatest icon — all in the interest of "getting a building up."

"While this is one of the most important historical sites not only for African Americans but for the nation, they are simply moving ahead in a rush to finish the project," Miller said.

"Here is an opportunity to tell the real story of the American Revolution and the meaning of freedom. Americans, through Washington, were working out the definition of freedom in a new republic. And Washington had slaves.

"Meanwhile, the slaves were defining freedom for themselves by running away. There are endless contradictions embedded in this site."

He and several other historians believe the Park Service should stop construction and perform an extensive archaeological exploration, which could yield important information about Washington as a slave owner and the President's House, where Washington and then John Adams (who adamantly opposed slavery) lived until the White House, known as the Executive Mansion, opened in Washington in 1800.

UCLA's Nash, a professor of American history and a scholar of the American Revolution and Philadelphia history, believes the Park Service was remiss in not excavating "one of the richest sites in Philadelphia."

"My argument is that the National Park Service is burying history," he said. "Our memory of the past is often managed and manipulated. Here it is being downright buried."

Nash noted that the Park Service oversaw preliminary archaeological work in the area and uncovered a pit used to store ice for the President's House. They also discovered what is known as a "shaft feature," a deep columnar hole that could have been a well or a privy.

If it is a privy, Nash says, it could yield invaluable information about the daily lives of Washington's slaves — how they lived, what they ate, and what they discarded.

But the Park Service covered up the ice pit and shaft, "preserving them in place," as a park official said.

Jed Levin, the Park Service archaeologist who has overseen all excavations on the three blocks of Independence Mall, said the shaft was excavated to four feet and yielded only modern construction debris. He said it was covered over and preserved.

Privy notwithstanding, spokesman Sheridan said that the first block of the mall is "about the Liberty Bell" and not about the President's House or Washington's slaves.

"You have to think in terms of, are we to dig up everything no matter what?" Sheridan said. "We don't deny knowledge is good. But it has been our practice to preserve in place."

* * *
Nash calls the presence of slave quarters beneath the new home of the Liberty Bell a "delicious irony."

Washington brought eight of his dozens of slaves to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon, including his cook, Hercules, and Martha Washington's personal servant, Oney Judge.

Both slaves ran away after tasting freedom in Philadelphia; slavery was illegal in Pennsylvania, but out-of-staters could bring their property with them.

"Washington couldn't understand it," Nash said, referring to his slaves' escape.

That kind of history must also be aired, according to Nash.

"Maybe the National Park Service feels it would besmirch the Liberty Bell to discuss this, and that the Liberty Bell should be pure. But that's not history. . . . People deserve to know."

Sheridan said there would be some kind of display within the bell pavilion that explores the site's history. But he said the content of that display and whether it would address slavery had not been determined.

As for the complaints that the house overall will not be properly commemorated, Park Service officials said a placard will note the President's House. Critics have urged outlining the perimeter of where the house stood.

"But how democratic is it to pick out one property and give it such treatment?" asked David Hollenberg, a Park Service architect.

 

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