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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 12, 2002
Byline: Edward Lawler Jr.

Letter: 'Getting it right' at the Liberty Bell Center

The archaeologists who excavated the first block of Independence Mall have received some undeserved criticism due to the controversy over the slave quarters of the President's House (Inquirer, June 11). Let me set some things straight.

In March, when The Inquirer broke the story that the site of the quarters for the stable slaves will be almost at the front door of the new Liberty Bell Center, I spent several days reviewing the deeds, insurance surveys, maps, demolition photos, and other documents about the block. What I found was that the slave quarters had been demolished by 1828. Since this had been a single-story building and was hurriedly put up, it is likely that it had had only shallow foundations and no cellar. A five-story warehouse facing on Minor Street was built on the site in the 1850s, and, since this masonry building would have required extensive excavation for its foundations and cellar, it is likely any trace of the slave quarters was obliterated before the Civil War.

In November 2000, a narrow well was found by archeologists near the slave quarters site and partially excavated, but, since the well was exactly where one of the walls of the brick stable would have been, it is likely this was a 19th-century object, built after the President's House stable had been demolished. There was the remote possibility of finding the pit of a slave privy until the early 20th century, but by the 1930s the last bit of the stable yard had been excavated and incorporated into the cellar for the store at 524 Market St. Demolition photos of the block from 1951 indicate that searching for slave privies probably would have been futile even 50 years ago.

The National Park Service was required to do extensive archaeology on anything that was to be disrupted by the construction of the Liberty Bell Center. To minimize any disruption, the building was designed so that most of it will float on a concrete slab. The southern end of the exhibition hall (less than 20 percent of the whole) will have a basement, and is the only section on which full archaeological excavation was required. But, in keeping with the importance of the site, the Park Service ordered full archaeological work on 100 percent of the footprint of the new building, and John Milner Associates (which performed the archaeology) did a thorough and exemplary job.

The site of the slave quarters was not excavated because it lay outside the footprint of the new building, not because anything was being hidden or ignored. There is no conspiracy or secret plan to hide things. There's nothing left of it.

In the last month, there has been an enormous change in the position of Independence National Historical Park regarding the interpretation of slavery within the Liberty Bell Center and elsewhere. Park officials have sought the opinions of dozens of local historians and museum officials, and have brought in experts from all over the country to critique their plans. I believe that their commitment to "getting it right" is real, and I hope that it will result in an exhibition of which we can all be proud.

-Edward Lawler Jr. Plymouth Meeting


Lawler's research on the President's House was published in the January issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Biographical sketches of the eight slaves who lived in the house can be found at ushistory.org/presidentshouse.

 

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