On the eve of Independence Day, nearly 500 people gathered outside the Liberty Bell Pavilion to remember those who were not freed and to press for a memorial honoring them at Independence National Historical Park.
A new group calling itself the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition gathered near the Liberty Bell to urge the National Park Service to expand its discussion of slavery.
Their appeal comes after recent discoveries that George Washington kept eight slaves on the property when it was the nation's first presidential residence.
To emphasize their point, the protesters wove yellow police tape through their assembly as speakers evoked graphic images of slavery in Philadelphia.
"This is a crime scene," said Philadelphia lawyer Michael Coard, a coalition leader, to cheers from demonstrators from across the region. "Slavery was a crime against humanity."
The coalition includes several prominent African American leaders, including State Rep. LeAnna M. Washington (D., Phila.); Charles Blockson, curator of the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University; and Nation of Islam Minister Rodney Muhammad, all of whom attended the protest.
Participants waved black, green and red flags and carried umbrellas for shade as they marched to a drum beat in 99-degree heat.
They said they hoped to persuade the Park Service to include a slavery memorial in the plans for the new Liberty Bell Center - which sits in front of the spot where the slaves were quartered - that will open next spring in front of Independence Hall. The $12.6 million center is being constructed on part of what was the Robert Morris house, where George Washington and his successor, John Adams, lived during their presidencies.
Rally speakers ceremonially invoked the names of the eight slaves known to have lived with Washington in Philadelphia, a call that struck a chord with observers.
"I'm still amazed that George Washington had a problem understanding that these people wanted their freedom," said Wanda Cousins, a demonstrator.
Participants were vocal in their responses to rally speakers but largely silent to the journalists attending.
"We ask you to resist the temptation to speak unilaterally to the press or anyone else," speaker Reginald Bryant said to the crowd. "We want to keep on focus, on message."
Coard said the group's next step would be to present the Park Service with a formal demand for a memorial to the slaves.
The coalition, he said, is also coordinating a letter-writing campaign and preparing to ask federal courts to intervene in the pavilion's construction if the Park Service does not respond.
Coard did note, however, that the Park Service had agreed that a discussion of slavery at the Liberty Bell Center was proper.
"We know the National Park Service is willing to discuss this, and that's a tremendous victory," he said. "The sticking point seems to be the precise location."
Phil Sheridan, a spokesman for the Park Service, said before the rally that the agency planned "to tell the story about slavery and also about freedom... at the Liberty Bell."