Spurred by awakened public interest in the slaves who once lived steps away from what will be the Liberty Bell's new home, National Park Service officials have agreed to meet with a group of historians to discuss how slavery should be depicted at the site.
Recently published historical research showed that visitors to the new Liberty Bell Center, located south of Market Street and just east of Sixth Street, will enter the building directly over the spot where President George Washington housed his slaves from 1789 to 1797.
Washington's presidential home, the nation's first executive mansion, fronted on Market Street with slaves quartered toward its rear. It was demolished in the 1830s.
Historians have been pressing the Park Service for several weeks to acknowledge that slavery existed in the shadow of the country's great symbol of liberty and to address the issue - and the actual slaves - in exhibits. They also want the Park Service to depict the mansion, which was owned by financier Robert Morris and was known as the President's House, in some substantial fashion.
In a letter sent Monday, Martha B. Aikens, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, invited a small group of historians to visit the park the second week in May to discuss "our exhibit panel on slavery," which was added to the Liberty Bell Center exhibition scheme a month or so ago. She also invited discussion on "outdoor exhibits for the mansion."
But Aikens, writing in response to the historians' request for a meeting, ruled out of bounds all talk of rebuilding or outlining the President's House.
Gary B. Nash, a professor of American history at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he was looking forward to the encounter.
"This is what we asked for - a real discussion," Nash said. "My hope is that they allow us to see their interpretive plan - the words they've already written, the artifacts they're planning to show. Then you can get a full picture."
Nash acknowledged that further archaeological exploration of the site would be of little value. A month or so ago, he had questioned the extent of the excavation that preceded groundbreaking on the new $12.6 million Liberty Bell building. Nash now says the excavation, which uncovered about 30,000 artifacts and located the President's House ice house among other things, was as fruitful as could be expected from a site that had been bulldozed for construction several times over the years.
U.S. Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel (D., Pa.), who has been following the debate, said yesterday that no subject should be "off limits" during the upcoming meeting.
"They should be open to all suggestions and ideas," Hoeffel said.