Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 19, 2002
Byline: Tanya Hall

Tourism relies on telling story of slaves at Liberty Bell site

Recent developments in the debate over George Washington's slaves, once housed near the proposed site of the new Liberty Bell Pavilion in Philadelphia, greatly concern my organization, the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress.

As a division of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, the men and women of the Multicultural Affairs Congress (MAC) are responsible for positioning Philadelphia as one of the nation's leading multicultural travel destinations. The slavery dispute could hinder our work.

Recently, the House Appropriations Committee in Washington called on the National Park Service - which oversees Independence National Historical Park, home of the Liberty Bell - to formally acknowledge the slavery. The committee said the park service should "appropriately commemorate" the eight enslaved Africans who toiled in our nation's first White House and suffered in bondage at the hands of Washington.

While we commend and congratulate the committee for making such an admirable recommendation, we also emphasize how crucial it is for the Park Service to act on it.

Research shows that Philadelphia is doing three times better than the national average in attracting African American visitors. In fact, we're doing so well that one out of every four visitors to our region is an African American, which translates into $80 million each year for our economy.

Since 1987, MAC and the convention and visitors bureau have booked more than $600 million worth of African American convention business for the city. The largest convention Philadelphia will host this year - our biggest convention year ever - is the National Baptist Convention, the largest African American religious organization in the nation. That convention in September is expected to draw more than 30,000 attendees and generate more than $40 million in delegate spending.

To let the slavery issue slow down this momentum would be senseless, and it would be downright foolish for the National Park Service to risk losing all that we have accomplished by neglecting to take the necessary steps to resolve the current Liberty Bell issue.

Dennis R. Reidenbach, acting superintendent of Independence Park, told The Inquirer recently that a memorial might not necessarily be needed; he said he was unsure whether Congress was telling the park service to erect a statue or a specific memorial. However, it is our belief that a generic plaque or historical marker will not "appropriately commemorate" those enslaved Africans.

We support working toward the construction of a prominent monument or memorial to be placed in front of the new pavilion. In addition, we are committed to ensuring that the courageous lives of the enslaved are accurately interpreted and commemorated through authentic objects, artistic renderings, reenactments, traditions, scholarship and diverse languages. Electronic media and publications relating to them also should be provided for visitors' enlightenment and inspiration.

As the debate continues, the voices of local African American historians must be heard. City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, a MAC board member, has assured us the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Committee, which she chairs, also will weigh in on the issue.

Quite frankly, the short story about the history of the Liberty Bell that park rangers present to visitors needs significant improvement. The story lacks pertinent information regarding the bell's connection to slavery and our nation's first president.

Let's keep in mind that every year beginning in 2003, an estimated 12.4 million people from all over the world will visit the Liberty Bell in its new home. As they enter the new $12.6 million pavilion, each of them will walk directly over the ground where Washington held Africans captive during the eight years of his presidency. If that doesn't move the National Park Service to act on the recommendation of the House Appropriation Committee, nothing will.


Tanya Hall (tanyah@pcvb.org) is executive director of the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress, a division of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.

 

Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more