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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: September 6, 2005
Byline: Joseph A. Slobodzian

Independence Mall slavery memorial gets federal funding

The money will help pay for a proposed project to commemorate nine of George Washington's slaves.

The last hurdle blocking a project commemorating the lives and times of nine enslaved Africans – brought to Philadelphia by George Washington to serve in the first executive mansion on what is now Independence Mall – is gone.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) is to announce today a federal grant of about $3.6 million to fund the President's House project at Sixth and Market Streets near the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.

With $1.5 million in matching city funds promised in 2003 by Mayor Street, Fattah said, there is enough to complete a project some say could become the nation's most significant symbolic attempt to come to terms with more than three centuries of slavery and its legacy.

The final form of the President's House project – the actual house was razed in 1832 – must still be decided, but everyone agreed money was the last obstacle.

Fattah said the sometimes thorny public debate leading to today's announcement resulted in a "new understanding" of the role enslaved Africans played in creating the United States.

"We can't have a history of this country that leaves out the important contributions of African Americans," Fattah said.

"Great is the perfect word to describe this. I am ecstatic," said Michael Coard, the Philadelphia lawyer who founded Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which campaigned for federal commemoration of the slaves who accompanied Washington and his wife to Philadelphia in 1790, when it was the interim U.S. capital.

Dennis R. Reidenbach, acting superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, said he hoped the project would lead to more research about the lives of Washington's slaves as well as the city's sizable community of free Africans.

"I consider this one of the top three interpretive opportunities the National Park Service has," Reidenbach said. "It will give us an opportunity to talk about the heroic and the shameful that took place on this site."

Such unanimity was not always the case.

About five years ago, when plans for a new Liberty Bell Center were announced, they did not include memorializing the lives of Washington's slaves or even the first Executive Mansion, the exact location of which was unknown.

But then historians and digs established the footprint of the Executive Mansion, ice house, and other buildings. The entrance to the new Liberty Bell Center was almost directly over where Washington's slaves were most likely quartered.

The controversy that arose among the National Park Service and historians and members of the African American community boiled in public and private for months.

In February 2003, Mary Bomar, then the park's new superintendent, tried to bridge the divide. There was a redesign of exhibits inside the Liberty Bell Center to more pointedly note the paradox of the bell's promise of liberty and the reality of life for African Americans.

Last November, after a community forum, Bomar announced that the President's House project would also commemorate Washington's slaves and their lives.

Washington, a Virginia planter, owned slaves, and in Philadelphia his chef, Hercules, and his wife's personal servant, Oney Judge, both fled to freedom – aided, apparently, by some of the city's free Africans.

While living at Sixth and Market, Reidenbach said, Washington wrote letters asking for help recapturing the slaves. In 1793, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act allowing "slave catchers" to work in Northern states.

Adams, his successor, was a Massachusetts lawyer who opposed slavery.

"It's almost too beautiful to be true," said Randall Miller, a St. Joseph's University historian and project advisory committee member, referring to the alignment of slavery and the nation's first two presidents underlying – literally – the public entrance to the Liberty Bell.

If it's done right, Miller said, the result could be every bit as moving as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington: "It should be something that demands reflection."

 

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