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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 29, 2003
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Slavery in the heart of freedom

In spring 2002, news struck the normally quiet Liberty Bell.

For years, this mythic icon sat encased in its glass mausoleum, visited by millions annually, like Lenin entombed in Red Square.

No matter that the bell's story was more legend than fact — its truth lay in the feelings of ideal nationhood it inspired.

Then came the news: The new pavilion for the bell was being built virtually on top of the spot where George Washington quartered his chattel slaves throughout his presidency.

Visitors would walk over the spot where the first president's human property slept and toiled in the 1790s.

The National Park Service said it had no intention of acknowledging this fact and no plans for exhibition material to explore the anomaly of slavery existing at the symbolic heart of American freedom.

Controversy erupted, leading park officials to revamp the planned Liberty Bell exhibits to include discussion of bondage in America.

With nudging from Congress and citizens groups, the Park Service also announced plans for a slavery memorial and a commemoration of the house where Presidents Washington and John Adams lived just north of the new bell pavilion, slated to open this fall.

The continuing controversy has had major implications for the Park Service and the stories it presents at Independence National Historical Park.

Slavery may be gone, but its history is very much alive in the minds of Americans, who are no longer satisfied with a simple presentation of icons and shrines.

Yes, they say, George Washington was a Founding Father. But he was also a slaveholder. His slaves lived within steps of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

How can that be? What other founders proclaimed liberty and held enslaved Africans? How did Thomas Jefferson proclaim life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights and at the same time buy and sell human beings?

If George Washington had slaves, who were they and what happened to them? Were there free blacks in Philadelphia? Where did they live, and what did they think and do?

In short, the controversy of the last year has focused attention on the overlooked, even despised, members of revolutionary American society. The real people of today want to know about the real people attending the nation's birth.

There is probably no better place for these questions to be asked, and answered, than Independence Mall.

Washington held eight slaves in the house near the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets, including two who escaped: Hercules, his fine chef, and Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal maid.

Hercules disappeared from Philadelphia, but Judge escaped to New Hampshire. Later, she would say that she made her escape with the help of the city's free black community.

There were slaves toiling on every block around Independence Hall in 1787 when the Constitution was being debated, but there were also important communities of free blacks. The largest lived directly south of the hall, but there was a major enclave on the block where the National Constitution Center sits today.

It is not difficult to imagine blacks from the Constitution Center site helping Judge, Hercules, or any other captive African seeking freedom. Several Africans living near the hall had banded together in 1787 to form the Free African Society, the first all-black self-help organization in the New World and the mother lode of all subsequent black churches and civil-rights groups.

James Dexter, a former slave, was an important member of the society and of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the city's first black church, erected in 1794 on South Fifth Street.

Dexter's old homesite, on North Fifth Street between Cherry and Race Streets, became a source of news and controversy over the last year as well.

The Constitution Center planned to build a visitors bus depot on the spot — without first excavating it.

After controversy again erupted, the center and the Park Service reconsidered. Last winter, an archaeological dig yielded a wealth of information about Dexter and his neighbors on the block.

Since 2000, archaeology at the entire Constitution Center site has yielded more than a million artifacts, making it perhaps the most significant urban and African American dig in the city's history.

There is new fascination with the real and contradictory revolutionary city — in all its diversity and messiness.

Consider that Dexter, a black coachman, lived next door to wealthy white brushmaker Ebenezer Robinson, a longtime antislavery Quaker.

Down the block lived Benjamin Cathrall, another wealthy antislavery Quaker. Behind Cathrall lived Israel Burgow, a black sawyer and founding member of St. Thomas.

Archaeological evidence suggests Burgow and Cathrall shared wine now and then, giving a new reality to the phrase We the people.

 

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