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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: September 29, 2002
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Bus depot plan will pave over history, critics say

Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia Inquirer
They call for an excavation in Philadelphia of a key African American site.

A bus depot designed to serve all of Independence National Historical Park will be constructed directly over what scholars now believe is one of the nation's most significant historic African American sites.

The National Constitution Center, the private nonprofit organization building the depot, has no plans to conduct an archaeological excavation of the home of James Oronoke Dexter - much to the dismay of historians, black civic and religious leaders, city tourism officials, and some politicians.

While he is not widely known, Dexter - whose story is just now coming to light - was a central figure in the building of free black society in post-revolutionary America.

Joseph M. Torsella, president of the Constitution Center, said last week that construction of the depot did not require extensive excavation and posed no threat to whatever traces of Dexter may remain in the resonant soil of Independence Mall.

"The bottom line is we do not anticipate any impact on the underlying [archaeological] resource," Torsella said. "Ultimately, the resource is there for research another day."

Dennis R. Reidenbach, acting park superintendent, said that National Park Service policy discouraged archaeological excavation of sites not in imminent danger.

"We don't do archaeology just because it's there," he said.

Some observers say this avoids the real issue.

"We are talking about the founding fathers of black America here," said Gary Nash, professor of American history at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I don't think we can do anything less than excavate."

Construction on the depot has already begun, with paving of the area expected by March. The area was open mall land before the current construction; an excavation of the site could uncover the foundation of Dexter's home and privies containing all manner of personal and household items.

Torsella said he had only recently learned of the Dexter site and is awaiting an official Park Service historical report, due within the next several weeks.

"This is new to us," Torsella said. "We are open to examining what kind of commemoration there might be."

The depot will run next to the Constitution Center on the west side of Fifth Street from the midpoint of the block to Race Street.

When it is completed, a dozen buses at a time will be able to disgorge mall visitors onto the asphalt laid over Dexter's homesite.

Dexter, a close associate of 18th-century black leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, was a prominent member of the Free African Society and a founding officer of St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church - the two earliest black organizations in the city.

In the latter part of the 18th century, he lived on Fifth Street, just north of Cherry Street. It was in Dexter's simple wooden house that Allen, Jones, William Grey, and other free blacks met to discuss efforts to liberate their still-enslaved brethren, provide financial and moral support for free blacks and escaped slaves, and plan the first independent black organizations in the new nation.

"Everybody should press as much as is reasonable for an archaeological study" of the Dexter site, said the Rev. Jeffrey N. Leath, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, founded on South Sixth Street by Richard Allen in 1794 - just months after Jones, Dexter and others founded St. Thomas' on South Fifth Street.

Little is known about Dexter, although scholars say more could be uncovered through the kind of intensive research associated with archaeological excavation. Dexter was a coachman by trade and may have worked for his next-door neighbor, Ebenezer Robinson, a wealthy antislavery Quaker.

It was in Dexter's house that Jones and others met to plan financing and building St. Thomas'. Dexter was in charge of finding the brick and stone to erect the church on Fifth Street, south of Walnut Street.

St. Thomas' stood on that spot for nearly a century before it was torn down. The congregation is now located in Overbrook.

"It's interesting when you think of that bus depot in terms of symbols," said Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University. "People will get off the buses there. They'll get on the buses there. You want to go biblical, people will be shaking the dust from their sandals on the site where the first African church was born. As a symbol, that's hard to take."

Many agree with that assessment.

"They've gone 200 years without a bus depot there," said Mr. Leath of Mother Bethel, who believes an archaeological excavation of the site is essential. "They've gone 60 years as a tourist attraction without a bus depot. Another six months or a year won't hurt. They can wait for something this important."

"We know about Richard Allen and Absalom Jones and all that," said Charles Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. "But the ordinary people who had just as much impact on our lives today are unknown. This is dynamite! It's up to us to bring out the truth."

Torsella, of the Constitution Center, said that Dexter would be included in an exhibition within the center to be located "in our preshow gallery." That exhibition will highlight the residents of the entire block bounded by Fifth, Sixth, Arch and Race Streets at the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 - the same year the Free African Society was founded.

Concern over the bus depot follows strikingly similar concerns raised this spring when it was learned that the new Liberty Bell Pavilion, on Sixth Street south of Market Street, is being constructed near the site where George Washington quartered his slaves during his presidency in the 1790s.

The National Park Service, which initially had no plans to acknowledge Washington's slaves or to discuss bondage in any detail, subsequently agreed to highlight slavery in exhibits inside the bell pavilion.

Officials are mulling how best to tell the story of the President's House.

The Constitution Center is required by federal law to perform a complete archaeological excavation and evaluation of its site, which has already yielded more than a million artifacts.

The Park Service oversees this archaeological work and is seeking a timetable from the center for completion of the project. Center officials, noting that about $5 million has already gone into archaeology, say they are preparing a plan but don't foresee extensive work beginning before the center opens in July 2003.

This is not good enough, critics argue. They say immediate historical work should now take precedence over previous plans and schedules of the Park Service and center.

Michael Coard, a lawyer and member of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a citizens group seeking a memorial to Washington's slaves near the site where they lived and worked, called the bus depot situation insulting.

"They are ignoring American black history by driving past it and, in effect, mowing it over," Coard said. "Something needs to be done."

City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who cosponsored a recent resolution (unanimously passed by Council) calling on the Park Service to commemorate Washington's slaves, said the Dexter site "needs to be recognized."

Reynolds Brown said she was considering introducing a Council resolution calling for just that.

Tanya Hall, of the Multicultural Affairs Congress of the Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it was up to the Park Service to address the Liberty Bell, slavery, and, now, one of the birthplaces of black America.

"Whether or not the bus depot is there or not, it is [Independence National Historical Park's] responsibility to interpret that land," Hall said. "It's nobody but INHP. The buck has got to stop with those whose ultimate responsibility it is to interpret that land."

Reidenbach, acting park director, said a major difficulty is selecting what to tell visitors and how best to do it.

"What are the stories that need to be told in this park?" Reidenbach asked. "Where are they to be told and what is the best way to tell them?"

 

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