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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: March 31, 2002
Byline: Gary B. Nash and Randall M. Miller

Don't bury the past

The historical memory of the place where George and Martha Washington lived in Philadelphia when he was the nation's first president has been buried for a long time.

More troubling, so has the history of the many slaves and servants who resided in and behind the Robert Morris house Washington leased during his stay - now the site where the new Liberty Bell pavilion will soon rise.

The National Park Service had archaeological research done on the site, but would not agree to complete investigations of the areas where the slave quarters, cisterns and privies used by slaves and servants might be found.

The Park Service decided to "preserve them in place," which is to say cover them over and put up the building. But the tools and skills are at hand so that the privies (into which all manner of broken items were tossed) could be located and mined for signs of the daily lives of the household servants, the first family, and others who lived and served in Philadelphia's presidential mansion.

Until a few days ago, the Park Service insisted that interpretive displays at the Liberty Bell pavilion should focus on the bell, not the historic site itself. Under that approach, would visitors even know that they are walking over the old slave quarters of our first president as they move toward the Liberty Bell with its inscription "Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land"? Not likely.

Two weeks ago, when asked the question, the chief interpreter at Independence National Historical Park only promised a "wayside panel" to mark the history of the place. That is, a plasticized sidewalk sign near the new pavilion might mention that this was where at various times a Penn grandson, a British general, and a notorious traitor once lived — and where George and Martha Washington resided for nearly seven years. And, oh yes, their slaves and servants.

We need more than that.

After The Inquirer raised this issue a week ago and Mayor Street voiced his concern, the Park Service decided there would be "an exhibition on slavery" at the Liberty Bell center.

We hope so, but will believe it only after the Park Service reveals the interpretation it plans to present and enlists historians to help bring out the rich stories showing how freedom and slavery commingled at the new Liberty Bell site and elsewhere.

The story is there. Washington was the living symbol of freedom and independence. Washington's slaves were living symbols of the most paradoxical part of the nation's birth — freedom and unfreedom side by side, with the enslavement of some making possible the liberties of others.

An exhibition of documents and artifacts should show slavery's and freedom's many meanings at the dawn of the new nation. Doing so will make the Liberty Bell's own story ring loud and true. In the new pavilion, visitors would be able to ponder the meaning of the Revolution by knowing how Washington's slaves acted to do what their master and mistress would not — declare their inalienable rights.

In 1797, for example, a day before he was to be taken back to Mount Vernon, Hercules, Washington's cook and highly valued slave, made freedom real by fleeing from the slave quarters behind the President's house, announcing with his feet that he too was entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Washington, who had earlier privately pledged never to buy or sell another slave, begrudged Hercules his freedom and wrote furiously to get his cook back to bondage.

Visitors should also know how at least six other slaves, working with a battery of indentured white servants, continued to make the President and the First Lady's lives comfortable, prepared the meals for incessant banquets for congressmen and dignitaries, drove the founding father and his family around the city in their carriages, washed their clothes, groomed their hair, tended their horses, cleaned the house, chopped the wood, and much more.

The Park Service must deliver on its promise that these stories will not be buried. A free people dare not bury evidence or silence long-forgotten African Americans, whose stories make the meaning of the Liberty Bell and the Revolution real and palpable, here and abroad.


Gary B. Nash is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Randall M. Miller is professor of history at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

 

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