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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: July 21, 2006
Byline: Wayne E. Williams

An all-American tale in black and white

Our celebration of 230 years as a nation coincided with much progress at Independence National Historical Park on a project to portray slavery when it existed in the city of America's birth.

Thirty years ago, when I was a junior high student, Philadelphia, the nation and the world celebrated our national bicentennial.

The Treasury Department commissioned the United States Mints to imprint "1776-1976" on the front of quarters. The tails side featured a drummer with 13 stars in a circle surrounding a flaming torch.

All year leading up to Independence Day 1976, we students were drilled in the Declaration of Independence.

We studied in great detail the signers, the colonies they represented, their occupations, and their philosophies in declaring this nation separate from England. Our history teacher seemed obsessed with it. We even took a class trip to Philadelphia to watch the movie 1776.

The students in my history class were either African American or Puerto Rican. Our history teacher was a young Caucasian woman.

That did not seem to matter. The history surrounding our Founding Fathers appeared to be her personal pet cause. Therefore, she had managed to keep our attention on the "Spirit of '76."

I have visited Independence Mall many times since then. And a lot has changed since my days in seventh grade.

Thirty years later, more and more of the untold stories concerning slaves and their roles are being incorporated in the portrayal of Colonial life at Independence Park and other historic sites throughout Old City.

This year, leading up to the July Fourth celebrations, I followed the Independence Visitor Center guide for things to do.

I attended "The Women of President Washington's Household," a dramatic presentation on July 1. Park rangers and actresses made every attempt to explain and portray life fairly as it was at Morris Mansion when George Washington stayed there as America's first president.

Recently, I also attended a public meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center concerning the selection of design teams for the exhibit proposed to be built at Independence Park commemorating the slaves whom George Washington brought with him to Philadelphia, America's first capital city, from Mount Vernon.

I heard remarks by those who felt the design teams needed to be more reflective of the African-American community.

I have every confidence that as "owner's representative" for the city for the planned President's House memorial on Independence Mall, Rosalyn McPherson, an African-American, brings much experience in handling major projects.

I've listened to many advocates speak about the need to commemorate those who were kept as slaves at Morris Mansion during George Washington's term as Commander in Chief. I agree with them.

The story of slaves living in quarters at 6th and Market Street is part of Colonial American history, though by the 1790s, Pennsylvania had begun to take measures to outlaw slavery within its boundaries. This history of slavery should better be commemorated.

What I like about being middle-aged are the experiences I've accumulated. I'm a little wiser as to the way things used to be and the way they are now.

Historians agree that in keeping slaves at the Morris Mansion during his eight years in Philadelphia as president, George Washington was breaking the law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Many people have put in long hours to make the projected project a success.

Just over $5 million already has been allocated in city and federal funds toward creating "The President's House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation."

When this new commemorative is completed it will be a welcome addition to Independence National Historical Park.

 

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