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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 2, 2002
Byline: Acel Moore

As Liberty Bell flap continues, a slave memorial is suggested

This is the fourth column I have written about the new Liberty Bell pavilion now under construction in Independence National Historical Park. Controversy now centers on the depiction of the bell's history, whether that depiction sufficiently acknowledges that George Washington housed slaves here when he served as president, and slavery's implication in the symbolism of the bell itself.

Those columns have spurred e-mail from around the nation as well as scores of telephone calls. If those responses are any indication, the story is still alive and the controversy is still growing.

The National Park Service certainly has changed its position since the issue was brought to its attention two months ago by local historians.

On May 13, representatives of the park service met with those two and other scholars and community leaders, including black historians Charles Blockson and Ed Lawler, as well as Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.), who suggested changes in the park service's plans for the new pavilion.

As a result of that meeting, the park service has asked for further suggestions from a group of eminent historians and African American scholars. The group includes John Hope Franklin, nationally renowned scholar from Duke University; Spencer Crew, head of the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati; James Horton of George Washington University; Faith Ruffin of the Smithsonian Institution; and historian Eric Foner.

According to a spokesman for the Independence National Historic Park, the group has been asked to look at printed material distributed at the park and suggest textual and graphics changes in information at the new pavilion. The group's suggestions will be shared with the public on the park service Web site (www.nps.gov).

One group that has responded to the park service is headed by local lawyer Michael Coard of the Bowser Law Center and host of Radio Courtroom, a radio talk show that airs each Saturday on WHAT-AM (1340), a black-oriented radio station.

Coard has organized a letter- writing campaign and is building a coalition of black leaders including elected officials and ministers with whom he has asked the park service to meet.

"I am trying to persuade the National Park Service to do the right thing," said Coard in an interview, "which is to publicly acknowledge the existence and contribution of enslaved African Americans who were to toil in bondage for the nation's first president here in Philadelphia on the grounds of the first White House."

Coard also said he and other lawyers are looking into a lawsuit that would stop the development of the pavilion until an acceptable agreement can be reached. Coard said he hoped a suit would not be necessary.

Still others are planning some form of demonstration for July Fourth celebrations at Independence Park, when Secretary of State Colin Powell will receive the Liberty Medal.

Not all of the response from readers on this issue has seen a problem here. Some say I am beating a dead horse, that slavery is over and done with, and we should move on. But most respondents - black, white, and other ethnic groups - feel as I do that the complete American story needs to be told, especially the contribution of enslaved and free Americans of African descent to the development of this nation. They say that Americans should be reminded of the excluded people for whom the Liberty Bell did not toll - and that story should be included in the new pavilion.

Some have insisted that whatever is done, a memorial for the enslaved should be included, if not in the new pavilion then somewhere in Independence National Historical Park. Included in this group is Karen Warrington, who represented Rep. Bob Brady at the May 13 meeting.

What is good about all the response is that it comes from concerned citizens who feel strongly about an accurate and honest portrayal of American history. That's something for everyone to feel good about.

 

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