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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: March 27, 2002
Byline: Editorial

Freedom & slavery

Just as they coexisted in the 1700s, both must be part of Liberty Bell's story.

Moving the Liberty Bell to its new $9 million pavilion will afford visitors a view of the old bell framed against the 18th-century Independence Hall.

That's the fool-the-eye effect of shifting the pavilion off-center on Independence Mall - just so the tall buildings of today are obscured.

No surprise, since that's the architects' plan. But how many people could have imagined the bell's move would hold far greater significance?

Thanks to new sleuthing on the city's past, not just the view but the historical perspective on the Liberty Bell could be that much sharper.

When the pavilion opens in a year - work has just begun - the old cracked bell will be situated on ground that enhances it as a cherished symbol of the struggle for liberty, especially to African Americans.

On the same gridiron-sized tract, historians now agree President George Washington quartered slaves living in Philadelphia while the city served as the nation's capital.

Local historian Edward Lawler Jr., who painstakingly plotted the footprint of Washington's house at Sixth and Market Streets, sees drama and irony: "The last thing that a visitor will walk across or pass before entering the Liberty Bell Center will be [the site of] the slave quarters," he states.

Amid some calls to rethink the pavilion design, Mayor Street has struck exactly the right stance: Build the pavilion as planned, but find a dignified means to commemorate the site's links to slavery.

That's been the long-standing intent of the National Park Service. After all, park rangers' spiel about the Liberty Bell notes that the bell became famous only after slavery abolitionists adopted it as their symbol.

And stand with a ranger in Independence National Historical Park near the Liberty Bell, its sterile, drive-up building soon to be history:

See over there? That's Congress Hall, where delegates debated slavery. In Franklin Court, the Pennsylvania Gazette printed ads on runaways and slave sales. In Old City Hall, former slaves sued for their freedom, and the park itself contains Underground Railroad sites. At Independence Hall, both Thomas Jefferson's words and the Constitution's sidestepping of slavery were parsed.

The latest contribution to this curriculum will be a mural-sized outdoor artwork affixed to the Independence Visitor Center - opposite the Washington house site. Alongside the anti-slavery words excised from drafts of the Declaration of Independence, artist Alison Sky displays quotes from African and Native Americans that explore how different history might have been had those words remained.

Park Service officials, to their credit, say they're eager to expand that conversation. They also need to denote the Washington house better, possibly by partly outlining its walls.

Meantime, the Liberty Bell in its new home will not bury an ugly part of the country's history. It can continue to "proclaim liberty" - as a symbol that helped quell the grimmer echoes of slavery.

 

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