For whom does the bell toll?
The National Park Service is seeking an answer to that question as the controversy over slavery and the Liberty Bell is proving as resilient as the bell itself.
Some scholars are calling on the Park Service to convene a broad public meeting to discuss questions raised by the proximity of the bell's new home to the site where President George Washington quartered his slaves in the last decade of the 18th century.
Heavyweight cultural commentators are arguing that the debate over how to tell the bell's story in a nation that countenanced racial bondage amounts to nothing more than effete multiculturalism seeking to tarnish a national symbol.
In North Philadelphia, rumors have sprung up suggesting that the skeletal remains of slaves lie beneath the earth of Independence Mall. More rumors suggest that the Liberty Bell may be picketed on July Fourth during ceremonies honoring Secretary of State Colin L. Powell with the city's Liberty Medal - though who would do the picketing and for what purpose remain obscure.
Park officials say there are no bodies, slave or otherwise, beneath the soil of Independence Mall. But the stories, they say, are unsettling and have taken on the status of urban legends in some communities.
Rumors notwithstanding, officials say they are committed to creating a Liberty Bell exhibition that reflects both the sometimes-nasty realities of American history and the inclusive symbolic power of the bell.
"There is broad agreement that this is a desirable goal," said David Hollenberg, associate regional director at the Park Service. "A lot of the challenge is in the balance."
That concerns historian and collector Charles L. Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Collection of African American materials at Temple University. Blockson attended a recent meeting of historians and park officials to discuss how to present the bell's story.
"We are getting calls in the African American community - people want to go down and protest," Blockson said. "People are angry."
The historians requested the meeting after The Inquirer reported that the entrance to the new $12.6 million Liberty Bell Center, on the east side of Sixth Street between Market and Chestnut Streets, will be on the spot where Washington housed slaves during his presidency. (The center is scheduled to open a year from now.)
From 1789 to 1797, Washington lived in a house owned by financier Robert Morris that fronted Market Street.
Blockson noted that the fact Washington owned slaves is hardly news. But many, he said, are unaware that Morris was involved in the slave trade, and that Washington kept slaves in Philadelphia throughout his time in office.
Slavery was outlawed in Pennsylvania in 1780, but various grandfathering clauses and rules affecting nonresidents allowed many slave-owning families to keep their human property. Slaves still resided in Philadelphia as late as the 1840s.
"Tell the story," said Blockson. "Yes, slavery was a terrible institution. Never in my [Philadelphia public school] life did I hear there were slaves in Philadelphia. Never! This is crucial. Are you going to continue to tell lies?"
Blockson is concerned that there are not more African Americans involved in the Liberty Bell discussions and decision-making for the Park Service. Beyond that, he believes a public meeting on the issue is essential. The bell story, in his view, should encompass the stories of immigrant groups who sought refuge in America.
"This is big," Blockson said. "If we don't tell the truth now, it's going to affect people who are not born... . I think the public has the right to know."
It is this kind of argument that aggravates Roger Kimball, managing editor of the New Criterion, a conservative journal.
"I think the outcry is preposterous from the word go," Kimball said. "The real story is not the fact that George Washington had slaves - all landowners in the South had slaves. The interesting thing is that he freed his slaves. The story of liberty in this country is that we had the blight of slavery and we overcame that."
Kimball argues that "multiculturalists" are behind the Liberty Bell controversy, which represents "another instance of grievance politics attempting to trump beneficent and innocent designs" (in this case the efforts of the Park Service).
Other historians involved in Liberty Bell discussions note that the Park Service has made major changes in its approach to the bell exhibit.
Randall Miller, professor of American History at St. Joseph's University, said there would now be a discussion of slavery and freedom inside the Liberty Bell Center, where the Park Service plans to have 10 huge exhibition panels containing text, images and artifacts related to the bell's story.
Charlene Mires, assistant professor of history at Villanova University, said discussions are "going in the right direction."
"At the present time, there is a lot of emphasis in the bell talks [by Independence Park rangers] on the power of the bell as a symbol," Mires said. "This is the issue. Symbol of what?"
Outside the new bell center, plans call for at least two panels directly addressing Washington, his slaves, his residence, known as the Executive Mansion, and activities that went on in that house, which was torn down in the 1830s.
That isn't good enough for independent historian Edward Lawler Jr., whose extensive research into the history of the nation's first "White House" (John Adams lived there, too) definitively described the building and the location of the slave quarters.
Lawler wants the mansion's footprint outlined on the ground.
"This is an opportunity to give people an authentic and important history experience they weren't able to get before," Lawler said.
Hollenberg, the Park Service regional director, said officials were skeptical that a building outline would be meaningful to visitors. If, however, "nothing better than outlining is presented" to tell the story of the house, "obviously we'll take a look at it," Hollenberg said last week. That represents a change from previous outright rejections of the idea.
Hollenberg also said a public meeting was possible after initial reworking of the Liberty Bell exhibitions had been completed. He expects that work to be finished by July. Work on exhibitions related to the Executive Mansion will take longer, he said.
"We are looking at the bell as a symbol of an ongoing continuous struggle for liberty rather than liberty attained," Hollenberg said. "I think we are ready to tell that story. I don't think we're caving in to anybody."