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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 11, 2002
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

At Liberty Bell, protesters push for excavation of slave quarters

They gathered to denounce the Park Service for not doing more, though historians say not much evidence remains.

Hot town. Summer in the city.

But for a small band of demonstrators at the Liberty Bell yesterday, neither heat, nor glare, nor Market Street fumes meant much.

"They are deliberately burying the truth about the slavery of African people here in the heart of the so-called birthplace of American democracy and freedom," Alison Hoehne, chair of the African People's Solidarity Committee, told curious tourists, fellow demonstrators and reporters gathered in front of the Liberty Bell pavilion as the sun beat down. "We don't want these truths hidden anymore."

Slavery has become a hot issue here, as hot as any summer day. George Washington is no longer seen as a remote Founding Father. He is now being talked about as the president who held slaves in the nation's first executive mansion, once located at Sixth and Market Streets.

And the National Park Service, constructing a home for the Liberty Bell near the spot where those slaves once lived, is being pressed by scholars and a growing number of interested citizens to acknowledge the role of slavery in building the new nation.

That's what brought the demonstrators to the bell yesterday.

Hoehne, and others in her ad hoc group of activists, denounced the Park Service for refusing to excavate the site of the former slave quarters - even though historians now acknowledge that there is nothing much left to excavate. Washington's presidential house was torn down in the 1830s and subsequent construction on the site destroyed virtually all archaeological evidence of the 18th century.

Responding to the controversy, however, the Park Service has agreed to expand discussion of slavery at the park.

Visitors to the Liberty Bell yesterday emphatically agreed that slavery should be on the agenda when rangers discuss the bell and when exhibitions are presented for the public.

"It is not something that should be forgotten - they definitely should talk about it," said Shannon Julius, a parent with a group of students from Octorara Elementary School in Chester County.

"It's a big part of history," Julius' friend, Cathy Smoker, said.

Katelyn Barnett, 10, an Octorara fourth grader, was pointed on the subject.

"If that's where they kept slaves, they should not be forgotten," she said. "Nobody should be held in slavery."

Katelyn's friend, Jessi Julius, 10, agreed.

Neither girl had been aware that slaves once labored only steps away from Independence Hall.

Hakeem Gordy, 14, an eighth grader at Roberts Vaux Middle School, 24th and Master Streets, said he learned about slavery in school - but not about slavery in Philadelphia.

Slavery, he said, was something that happened somewhere else.

Not so, said Okiejane Lamont, 77. Slavery happened in Philadelphia, she said. And it was prevalent.

The Park Service, she said, should tell as much of the story as possible.

"It makes sense to let it be known how we've suffered," Lamont said. "It's part of history. I know about it, but other people need to know, too. It happened. It happened."

 

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