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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: May 16, 2002
Byline: Acel Moore

Editorial: Whole story of slavery, Liberty Bell still untold

After a daylong meeting on Monday among historians, scholars, and officials of the National Park Service, the controversy over exactly what shall be said at Independence National Park about slavery and its symbolic relationship with the Liberty Bell has ended. Or so some think.

I am not among them. The battle for an accurate account at the park concerning African American history and the role of the bell in the abolitionist movement is far from over. In fact, it may just be beginning.

The controversy centers on the new home for the Liberty Bell, a $12.6 million site at Sixth Street that is under construction. The center is being built over the grounds of the Robert Morris Mansion, where George Washington lived as president from 1789 to 1797. Washington held slaves in quarters attached to his residence. The slave quarters were razed in the 1930s.

Until historians and other scholars brought that up, few Americans knew that Washington had even had slaves in Philadelphia. In the literature handed out at Independence Park, and in the talks by park rangers as they guided visitors through the park, there was little or no mention of the slave trade, its relationship to the American Revolution, or the symbolic importance of the Liberty Bell in the movement to abolish slavery.

After Monday's meeting, Park Service officials said that suggestions from those in attendance would be incorporated in what is published and said at the new center. That amounts to a reversal of an informal Park Service tradition: Officials had previously said that the Liberty Bell and Washington's slaves were two stories that had no relationship.

Historians and scholars who lobbied for the whole story to be told should be praised for that reversal. But the controversy is not over, and there are crucial questions that have not been answered. The two biggest are: Who is going to write the story? Which facts will be included?

Among those who think that much of importance has yet to be resolved are two who attended Monday's meeting: architect Ed Lawler, and writer and historian Charles Blockson.

Blockson, Lawler and others point out that Robert Morris was considered to be one of the primary financiers of the American Revolution, if not the primary financier. Although he was a land investor, he obtained most of his wealth from the slave trade. In other words, our revolution rested heavily on slavery.

It has been suggested that the Revolution's direct debt to slavery be dramatized in one of the panels to be placed in the new Liberty Bell Center.

One panel, however, won't be enough. The contributions of Americans of African descent to the founding of this nation are too numerous and integral to be summed up in one panel. And the implication of slavery in our revolution is likewise too complex and too wide-ranging to keep to a single panel.

In short, we need to have public hearings on this issue; the Park Service has held hearings on construction matters but never on slavery. The mandate engraved on the Liberty Bell - "Proclaim Liberty throughout All the Land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof" - has run into many roadblocks in reality. We still are reluctant to tell the whole story. But telling it is a debt owed not only to Americans of African decent but also to all citizens of America.

The new Liberty Bell Pavilion and the new Independence Visitor Center offer a great opportunity to start telling the whole truth at last.

 

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