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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 23, 2009
Byline: Annette John-Hall

Annette John-Hall: At President's House, a shameful history gives way to progress

It's easy to understand all of the passion that has surrounded the President's House memorial. Such a precious piece of American history, the first public telling of slavery in Philadelphia, couldn't help but take on a life of its own.

Sure, it was hard to ignore the hundreds of thousands of spectators who flocked to the excavation site at Independence Mall a couple of summers ago, as archaeologists unearthed history of Presidents George Washington and John Adams — along with the nine enslaved Africans who lived and toiled at Washington's executive mansion.

Yet, who could have predicted that the obscure lives of nine slaves could serve to break down the seemingly impenetrable barriers of bias in the construction industry?

But that's exactly what's happened. On Friday, Mayor Nutter announced that a whopping 67 percent — 67 percent! — of the subcontracting opportunities in construction of the President's House memorial were awarded to businesses that are minority- and women-owned.

In all, six African American-owned firms (one headed by a woman), one Latino firm, one Asian firm, and five firms owned by women will get a part of the President's House action.

It would have been the height of hypocrisy to build a memorial honoring slaves if African Americans were not an integral part of building it. And getting paid for their work, unlike those in bondage.

"This can be the model in the approach to hiring minorities and women in private and public construction in the city," the mayor said. "This kind of commitment and attention to detail is what we need in the construction industry."

For an industry that has for years arrogantly ignored requests — even defying court orders — to diversify its ranks, the fact that the President's House project has taken the lead in inclusion speaks volumes of what can be achieved if contractors don't just talk the talk, but also walk the walk.

No excuses

With this project, there wasn't the usual litany of excuses — we don't know your work, you don't have enough capital, you don't have enough bonding, you don't have enough experience, you bid too late, and on and on.

From the beginning, disparate forces came together to ensure that the President's House would be built not only with bricks and mortar, but also with a majority of minority workers participating.

There was Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, a minority firm and the lead team. Owner Emanuel Kelly, an African American, painstakingly reached out to a broad cross-section of firms, not just hiring them, but, in some cases, allowing them to get the experience they needed to, as they like to say in construction, "build capacity." Opportunities that minority firms rarely get.

In other words, give them the experience they need and set them up not to fail.

And create a workforce that will no doubt be committed and prepared for the onslaught of stimulus projects that will flow down the pike very soon.

Then there was the small, but mighty, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, led by lawyer Michael Coard, who has advocated for the memorial since 2002.

"We were just this ragtag, disorganized bunch of folks who found out about slavery here. But we didn't wring our hands about it. We got organized," said Coard.

He added that inclusion of minorities in the building's construction is "a microcosm of what projects could look like all over the country. You just have to have an organized demand."

'Everybody gets included'

A vastly bigger project than the $8.8 million President's House, the $800 million Convention Center expansion also had a breakthrough.

Despite early wrangling and obstacles, 66 of the project's 96 subcontractors are minorities and women. "We've done more than most to make sure everybody gets included," said Convention Center CEO Ahmeenah Young.

Which you sure can't say about most public and private projects in the city.

As happy as Young is with her own numbers, as an African American she can't help but watch what's going on at the President's House with personal pride.

Especially "given how shameful the history of inclusion has been," Young said. "It validates those who have struggled to have public projects reflected in the public."

Not to get too mystical here, but it's as if Washington's slaves — Moll, Richmond, Austin, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, Joe Richardson, Oney Judge, and Hercules — were acting as celestial overseers, nudging everybody to do the right thing.

"We are constantly trying to right the wrongs of the past," Nutter said. "I think, this time, we got this one right."

 

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