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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 30, 2008
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Remaking History

Science, grit help fill in blanks of early America.

On a bright spring day, when Michael Coard was 10 years old and skinny as a twig, he made the trek undertaken by thousands of Philadelphia schoolchildren before and since.

He visited the Liberty Bell.

What is this, he wondered, looking at 2,080 pounds of cracked bronze, then hanging in Independence Hall. What's so exciting?

His beaming white Masterman classmates seemed to share a good secret he did not understand. None of the rangers — all white men — who talked to the class mentioned slavery or abolitionism, the Civil War or civil rights. The African American boy from North Philadelphia left the park bemused.

He had looked at the bell, listened to talk of freedom, and thought about his own poor, hemmed-in black neighborhood. What did the bell have to do with that?

"It seemed like a big party that I wasn't invited to," recalls Coard, now a 43-year-old criminal attorney, who could not have known that more than 30 years in the future, he would be instrumental in opening the party up to everyone.

Back then, in the early 1970s, the story visitors heard at Independence National Historical Park was one of freedom, liberty and opportunity as reflected in the pale faces of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin. But today, as the city and the park service welcome tens of thousands of visitors to this week's July Fourth celebrations, the stories have changed — and changed radically.

Yes, at the bell the video and exhibits still portray liberty and freedom and Washington and Jefferson, but they also talk about slave-owning Founding Fathers, about abolitionism and the civil-rights movement. Visitors learn that the Liberty Bell was a symbol for the women's suffrage movement, for immigrants protesting discrimination in the New World, for human-rights activists everywhere. They learn that the idea of freedom evolves, that the American journey is incomplete.

None of this was part of ranger talks 35 years ago. But it's there now, largely because of a house long gone, the President's House, where George Washington and John Adams lived, worked and invented the presidency, and where Washington kept at least nine slaves.

The great change began in 2002, when scholars and citizens — including Michael Coard — were angered to learn that Independence Park officials had planned to build a new Liberty Bell pavilion virtually on top of Washington's slave quarters. The ensuing controversy compelled sweeping change in the park's narrative and allowed a host of new stories to flood onto the plain of Independence Mall.

And with the stories, told in exhibits, talks, tours and classroom programs, new characters present at the nation's creation have been brought into the light of the 21st century.

Here is Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal attendant, who defied a president and a Constitution in her escape from slavery. Here is James Oronoko Dexter, who bought his freedom, then helped found the first free African church and self-help group in the new nation. Here is Hercules, Washington's chef, who finally had enough of bondage and disappeared from Philadelphia.

The stories keep coming: Park sites are now seen in light of their relationship to the Underground Railroad, and a walking tour exploring that theme began four years ago; lineaments of a vibrant, free African community two blocks from Independence Hall — excavated by archaeologists in 2000 before the National Constitution Center was built — are being sketched out at a new public archaeology lab; the roles of slaves and slaveholders in the early life of such beloved institutions as Christ Church are being presented to the public.

And black enslavement at the nation's birth and in its birthplace has taken its place as a painful, essential topic of discussion and commemoration. In 2010, a memorial to the President's House and its enslaved occupants is to open right outside the front door of the Liberty Bell Center.

This change is a monumental revision of America's founding mythology, historians argue — one that has not diminished the sanctity of sacred ground but magnified it.

"The whole concept of sacred ground and the creation of sacred space has been extended by what's happened," said Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph's University, who has pressed Independence Park officials to address the issues raised by the site.

"We're not just looking for history. We're not just looking for information on free blacks or slavery. We're going deep into discovering ourselves as a nation."

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In the spring and summer of 2007, Philadelphia witnessed something unprecedented, as hundreds of thousands of people streamed across the city to look at a hole — an archaeological exploration of the house site at Sixth and Market Streets.

Washington's slaves lived there when he was president and Philadelphia was the nation's temporary capital in the 1790s. Though John Adams, his successor as president and occupant, opposed slavery and held no human property, the hole kept its redolence of the unspeakable, for some a wound exposing a painful past, for others a scooped-out vessel holding a culture's complex secret self.

The excavation, done under the auspices of the National Park Service and the city, ignited imaginations and intense conversations as more than 300,000 visitors watched archaeologists expose the symbolic foundations of black slavery and governing white power in the literal foundations of the first U.S. executive mansion.

"Here, the powerful," said one man, pointing to the uncovered granite footings of a great bow window designed by Washington and said to be the precursor of the oval rooms of the White House.

"Here, the powerless," he continued, pointing to kitchen foundations a few feet away, all that remained of the world where Hercules, Washington's chef, worked his culinary magic before escaping to freedom. Nearby the outlines of an underground passage linked the world of kitchen and the world of bow windows; those who passed between them did so invisibly.

From spring till August, when the foundations were temporarily re-covered to preserve them, visitors who crowded the viewing platform stood transfixed, looking down on America's intertwined, parallel history of slavery and freedom.

"When the site was covered over, what that said to me was how perfectly memory can cover up history," said Karen Warrington, an aide to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) and member of a committee overseeing plans for construction of a memorial on the site. "Society has such excellent skills for covering up what they don't want you to know.

"How many generations still have not heard this story? For me, every day it is not told is a denial of the essence of me. The President's House story, the telling of that story, is another shard in the mosaic of the telling of the African American story. And I don't want my grandchildren not to know it."

Clearly, archaeologists had uncovered more than historical artifacts. In March 2007, when Mayor John F. Street operated a backhoe turning the first excavated soil, dozens rushed to gather stones, fragments of brick and clumps of fresh earth — relics to keep and cherish.

When the excavation was completely open and the worlds of George and Martha Washington were revealed, so intimately interlaced with the worlds of Hercules and Oney Judge, Michael Coard ventured down, 15 feet below street level, to the area that had once been the kitchen.

He says he felt a power and a connection unlike any he had felt before in America.

"I'm down in the pit at Sixth and Market feeling the same physical, cultural and spiritual sensation standing there on that ground, where Hercules stood in the kitchen, that I felt when I touched the ground in Africa in 1996," Coard said.

Archaeology exposed this sacred ground, releasing its power. And while the President's House site has been the most dramatic example at Independence Park of archaeology's potency, it is not the only one. Perhaps more than any other single activity undertaken at the park, archaeology has triggered the greatest change and precipitated the greatest renewed interest in America's civic origins.

"It was thrilling to watch the public excitement, the awe that greeted the excavation," said David Hollenberg, who was then associate Northeast regional director for the park service and is now architect for the University of Pennsylvania.

Cynthia MacLeod, park superintendent since the beginning of 2008, and other park officials note that there has been a 20-year effort to present a greater diversity of stories at the park. At the Liberty Bell, for instance, rangers for many years were instructed to mention abolitionists, who actually gave the bell its name in the 1840s. But there was no Liberty Bell "script," and it was not unknown for rangers to give abolitionists short shrift or ignore them entirely.

"Recent archaeology has revealed 'new' tangible resources and is a wonderful vehicle for inquiry . . . into particular stories," MacLeod said in an e-mail, adding that the park is dedicated to telling "the major stories of the making of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution and the importance of the Liberty Bell."

"We are pleased now also to have the tangible connections to relate the stories of many individuals previously not as well represented, such as James Dexter, all the free and enslaved Africans at the President's House including Oney Judge and Hercules, and, I hope, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams who also occupied the President's House," she said.

Nevertheless, more than once in recent years, the park and its partners resisted archaeological efforts, balking at the pursuit of what local historian Ed Lawler has called "the power of the real."

Yet each time an excavation has been performed, it has uncovered something extraordinary — significant forgotten or unknown characters, the complexities of 18th-century life and previously hidden connections to 21st-century America, new history, new facts, all leading to heightened public interest.

It is not an exaggeration to call archaeology a key driver of the transformation of Independence Park, carrying it from the received traditional history of Founding Fathers and 20th-century veneration of their unassailability, to the complexities of the 21st century, where greatness is not denied but made more human.

"What we are looking at [through archaeology] are people telling their own story," said St. Joseph's historian Miller. "They're not writing it down, but they're doing it their own way and we have to go down and discover it.

"It's not just sacred ground — it's the realness of it that's so powerful. It's not reproduced. The African American story is there staring us in the face. Race is what defines us. There it is."

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The park service by law must perform an archaeological survey if proposed construction threatens historic ground surfaces. That led in 2000 to what many consider one of the greatest urban U.S. archaeological excavations ever undertaken, the dig that preceded construction of the National Constitution Center.

Over the course of several months, archaeologists uncovered what was, in essence, an 18th-century block captured in amber. Much of the 18th-century ground had never been built on, and the castoffs and remains of centuries ago were virtually untouched. Toys dropped in 1780 remained where they had fallen. Newspapers tossed aside emerged from the ground two centuries later still legible.

Parallel documentary research revealed that these cups and toys, beads and shoes were not relics of just any block but of a particular, extraordinary block. A thriving community of at least 60 free Africans had lived on it, including several early leaders of the city's emerging free black community. In their small brick and frame houses, they resided cheek-by-jowl with white anti-slavery Quaker merchants and landowners, struggling German shopkeepers, laborers, small manufacturers, a university professor and perhaps even a slave trader. Betsy Ross lived for a time on the block, as did Benjamin Smith Barton, who taught Meriwether Lewis botany before Lewis and William Clark set off on their expedition.

The Constitution Center was responsible for conducting and funding the excavation, and officials there were shocked at the initial $5 million cost, leading to years of debate about how to deal with the ongoing project.

That left a million artifacts out of the ground and, at best, in limbo. The work, however, brought historical attention to the block of North Fifth Street just beyond the excavation area where, it emerged, a key black leader, James Oronoko Dexter, had lived. The park and center planned to build a bus depot over the former homesite, just north of Cherry Street.

A free black and a coachman by trade, Dexter helped found the city's first black church, St. Thomas African Episcopal; key meetings were held in his home, where members of the Free African Society, the first black self-help and civic organization in America, gathered to discuss building and other issues.

Controversy erupted over the bus depot plans, but neither the Park Service nor the Constitution Center relished another costly excavation, arguing that archaeology for its own sake was not park policy. The depot would not disturb the Dexter site, officials said, therefore the park would not excavate and the site would be "preserved in place" beneath fumes, asphalt and traipsing sightseers.

But leaders of St. Thomas and Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church had a different take. "We told them we don't want a shrine, but we don't want to jeopardize the knowledge that's under the ground," said the Rev. Jeffrey N. Leath of Mother Bethel. "We're looking for information connected to our heritage."

Leath and other church leaders — who trace their institutional and civic history back to early black luminaries Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, and such lesser-known leaders as Dexter — were particularly interested in learning more about the active community of free blacks in early Philadelphia.

"They were not separate and apart," said Leath. "They had their hands on the pulse of what was going in the nation. The African American community was literate and connected and staying." If a Dexter excavation could illuminate that world, it should be undertaken.

In the face of such pointed interest, the park service and Constitution Center changed course and authorized an excavation.

"We started with the wrong answer and got to the right one," said Joseph Torsella, head of the Constitution Center. The excavation, he came to realize, "was too important" to ignore or put off.

The dig, conducted in the freezing, sleety winter of 2003, uncovered substantial material that could be reasonably associated with Dexter, bringing to light a range of household artifacts and culinary material and suggesting the persistence of African customs in the New World, archaeologists said.

It also demonstrated for the park service the value of public involvement and interest, particularly in the African American community.

"I think the Dexter excavation was very important," said Jed Levin, a park service archaeologist involved in all Independence digs in recent years. "It brought to the broader public this notion of a hidden African American history below ground. Almost nobody knew the name James Oronoko Dexter. This was literally hidden history."

The Dexter dig and the great Constitution Center dig ultimately led the park service and center to establish a public archaeology lab in the old park visitor's center. Now, at the Independence Living History Center, at Third and Chestnut Streets, anyone can watch archaeologists reconstruct the million-plus artifacts pulled from the Constitution Center block. Visitors may discuss the project and work with professionals and volunteers and look at an exhibit of found materials.

Independence Park has established school curriculum-enhancement courses on archaeology. It has initiated a walking tour, "History Beneath Your Feet," that "links the President's House site, Franklin Court and the Living History Center, the archaeological remains and the importance of the story that they tell us, a lot of which relates to African American history," said Steve Sitarski, head of the park interpretive and visitor services.

But when the possibility of archaeology at the President's House site was first broached several years ago, park officials said no — Washington and slavery was an important topic, best told elsewhere. "Too confusing," a spokesman said at the time.

That was before Michael Coard and other citizen activists and scholars became involved. Charles Blockson, curator of Temple's Blockson Afro-American Collection, called for an excavation. Gary Nash, UCLA professor of American history, and other historians did too.

In 2002, Congress directed the park service "to appropriately commemorate" those enslaved at the President's House. But it was not until 2003, when the city decided to put up $1.5 million toward the commemoration, that an excavation entered the realm of possibility, even though archaeologists were not optimistic about finding anything more than a few foundation walls of the main house.

Still, Street and his chief of staff, Joyce Wilkerson, decided that an excavation was appropriate. It was, after all, sacred ground.

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When Barack Obama delivered his speech on race on March 18 this year, he stood in the National Constitution Center and spoke of those who had labored at Independence Hall in 1787 to devise the Constitution. He noted that they had "traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution" but produced an unfinished document "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery."

The site of his address was freighted with ironies: He was standing above the spot where leaders of Philadelphia's free black community had formed the nation's first black organizations in that same year. Even as the 1787 Constitutional Convention was meeting, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones joined with other former slaves to form the Free African Society — which W.E.B. Du Bois later called "the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life."

It was the first wholly black effort to erase slavery's stain.

Several free blacks on what later became the Constitution Center block, all certainly involved with the society, had petitioned colonial and city officials, seeking rights and responsibilities as free citizens, and — with prominent whites around town — an end to slavery. They were unsuccessful.

These leaders may have met in the home of Robert Venable, who lived on North Sixth Street for decades — as long as any African American of that time is known to have lived in any one place in the city.

Or perhaps they gathered at the home of Israel Burgow, who lived on Cresson's Alley behind wealthy Benjamin Cathrall's house. A wine bottle in Burgow's yard suggested to archaeologists that he and Cathrall shared a convivial drink from time to time.

Records and contemporary accounts document meetings of free Africans at Dexter's North Fifth Street home.

All these men were of African descent. All were former slaves. All chose to remain and work to erase the stain of slavery built into the Constitution, and into the personal lives of many of the framers.

And here was Obama, almost literally standing on their shoulders, seeking to follow in Washington's presidential footsteps. This was a new story for the old sacred ground.

Arthur Sudler, a leader of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church who helped persuade the park service and Constitution Center to excavate the Dexter site, said he relished Obama's speech as much for where he delivered it as for what he said.

"I wish someone had whispered in his ear: 'Guess whose house you're standing on,' " Sudler said recently, chuckling.

He argues that "there's a need to delve deeper" into the reality of 18th-century life here — the 18th century of the Dexters and Venables.

That said, it is true that the park service has gone "from denying to designing," in the words of Michael Coard — from denying, or at least ignoring, slavery at the President's House site, to designing a memorial to the enslaved who lived there.

The journey has been rough at times. When the Independence Park plans for Liberty Bell Center exhibits were reviewed in 2002, following closely on the fresh controversy over Washington and slavery, even some park service officials found them "too celebratory."

According to park and design officials, there was minimal mention of slavery. The fact that abolitionists named it the "Liberty Bell" and took it as a symbol for their cause received a less than full discussion. There was no discussion at all of the bell's historic role as a symbol in struggles for women's right to vote or for human rights in general.

That all changed as the President's House debate unspooled. Guided — and prodded — by a group of historians, the park service completely revamped its exhibits to include discussions of slavery, abolitionism, women's rights, discrimination against immigrants, the U.S. civil rights movement, the human rights movement worldwide.

But for nearly two years the service refused to acknowledge that Washington actually built and used "slave quarters" in Philadelphia. Officials said there was no proof.

Ed Lawler, the independent historian, produced documents showing that Washington planned to build additional sleeping rooms behind the house, and planned to put enslaved stable workers in those rooms. Enslaved stableworkers did, indeed, live at the President's House — but, park service experts argued, there was no proof the new rooms were ever built.

So the service sought designs for a slave memorial but left out crucial information about the location or existence of slave quarters. There were skirmishes over whether slaves should be called slaves if Washington called them servants.

Community activists and scholars — Coard, Blockson and Nash among them — refused to budge: Slaves were slaves, no matter what Washington called them.

In the midst of all this, a new Independence Park superintendent was named. On Mary Bomar's first day on the job, in February 2003, she attended a benediction opening the excavation of the Dexter house site. With some pressing for action on the President's House, and others urging more attention to African American sites, she realized she had to "bring the squeaky wheel into the room."

"I was a vehicle to open doors and invite people in," Bomar, now head of the National Park Service, said recently.

Coard says Bomar's inclusiveness and willingness to listen to differing points of view had a big impact on the park and attitudes toward it.

"Some of our folks are afraid," Bomar said of seeming reluctance to address some issues. "It's very difficult to take on controversy. They don't want to misquote someone. They don't want to get their facts wrong.

"But we've come a long way. The National Park Service is willing to tell the stories. We tell the story of slavery as a cause of the Civil War. We tell the story of the Underground Railroad.. . . We are telling the story." African American stories are now woven into a new long-range park interpretive plan.

The President's House memorial has been slowed by a change in administrations but is on track. Roz McPherson, coordinator for the city, says it will incorporate archaeology into the design by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners and is scheduled for completion in 2010.

What will that mean?

Michael Coard says it means Masterman fourth graders who visit the Liberty Bell may have an opportunity he didn't have — to hear "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

He recalled the many discussions he heard on the platform at the President's House dig. "I'd see black people together talking and I'd see white people together talking. After a few days, a few weeks, I saw blacks and whites engaging. Sometimes it was a reasoned dialog and other times it was animated and heated. But that to me was like giving birth — it was painful, it was necessary.

"From those discussions, from those debates, from those arguments, comes a real movement toward the truth."


'A Story Too Important . . . To Go Untold' — John F. Street

Excerpts from a statement to The Inquirer from former Mayor Street, whose administration was pivotal in the campaign to excavate, preserve and commemorate the President's House site:

The President's House project is perhaps the most significant project to be undertaken by a city and an agency of the federal government since the initiation of the modern civil rights movement in the country.

The likely selection of Sen. Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States adds even more significance to the project. None of us could have anticipated this development, but the general election does in a significant way bring the issue of race in our country front and center as never before. It's extraordinary to think that an African American man — with the same racial heritage as Washington's nine slaves — could soon be the leader of the greatest country in the world.

The President's House illustrates the issue of race in its rawest form. Will Americans ever get beyond the issue of race? Will the aspirations of the majority of African Americans continue to be frustrated like no other group in this country?

I recognized early on that the city had an overriding obligation to this important issue. The existence of Washington's slaves during the birth of our nation had to be publicly acknowledged and appropriately commemorated.

The location of the President's House project is more than appropriate. There could be no more appropriate place than at the doorstep of the Liberty Bell, the symbol of freedom in this country. We begin to stimulate a dialogue about the historical context, which tolerated indefensible slavery coexisting under the very same roof of the home occupied by our Founding Fathers, who were marking our freedom. This extraordinary story of the nine enslaved African descendants who were denied freedom serves as a painful reminder of the "ugly truths" that plagued our country for hundreds of years. It's a story too important and compelling to go untold.

The re-creation of the President's House will serve as one of my fondest mayoral memories. The project inspired many and will continue to engage Philadelphians and people from all over the world in the rich historical legacy of our great city and country. I sincerely hope that this project will continue to draw local, national and international support to properly commemorate the true story of the President's House and all its inhabitants, including the nine slaves.


Go to http://go.philly.com/presidentshouse for photos, video, audio and stories about the President's House excavation.


Homage To The 9

Avenging the Ancestors Coalition holds its annual July 3 event at the President's House, Sixth and Market Streets, on Thursday. At 4:30 members will gather with local political figures for a reenactment of the lives of the nine enslaved Africans who lived there during George Washington's tenure. Information: 215-552-8751 or www.avengingtheancestors.com.

 

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