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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 5, 2003
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Moving History

When the Liberty Bell begins its slow journey at dawn Thursday, it will be moving from Market Street to a new home only 100 yards away in the new Liberty Bell Center.

But that short trip to Sixth Street near Chestnut involves not just a housing change.

The bell — the nation's most evocative icon of liberty — will also acquire a more nuanced past, with historical exhibits that weave a complex story touching on slavery, women's rights, subjugation of native peoples, and Jim Crow.

"It's moving a few hundred feet geographically," said Gary Nash, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, "and a few hundred miles conceptually."

The move is part of a continuing $300 million redesign of Independence Mall, under way for more than a decade. The Gateway Visitor Center at Sixth and Market and the National Constitution Center on Arch Street, also part of the redesign, have been completed.

The $12.9 million Liberty Bell Center had been scheduled to open last spring. But controversy broke out more than 18 months ago when it was reported that the center would be located virtually on top of quarters President George Washington built for his slaves.

After numerous discussions with historians and community groups, park officials agreed to delay the opening and rework the story line planned for the exhibits.

As a result, when members of the public enter for the first time at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, they will certainly find a stirring setting for the Liberty Bell: It will be uplifted high before a towering window wall looking out over Chestnut Street; the white cupola of Independence Hall and an arc of sky will serve as backdrop.

To reach this ethereal, chancellike space, however, visitors pass through an earthly exhibit area that explores not only the promise and achievements but the contradictions and failures of the nation — all embodied in a flawed and ancient artifact.

The exhibition — which consists of text panels, photographs, artwork and physical artifacts — will not only mention that the bell was named by abolitionists, it will acknowledge the presence of racial bondage.

It will note that the bell hung in Independence Hall during the Colonial and Revolutionary periods — and also point out that many Founding Fathers, including Washington, owned chattel slaves.

And in discussing the bell's travels after the Civil War, it will explain that trips through the South served to bind that region to the union at the time of insurgent Jim Crow rule.

Women, African Americans, Native Americans — all have had a complex, not always celebratory relationship with the Liberty Bell. The exhibit touches on all, and the National Park Service simply lets the story unfold.

"A lot of people come to see the bell out of an impulse, they don't know why," said Doris D. Fanelli, supervisory museum curator at Independence National Historical Park.

"I hope these panels on slavery and some others help to explain the bell, how it became a symbol, and, because we were able to include more text, I hope it provokes thinking."

Not that the focus of the exhibit is by any means wholly on the bell's crack as a symbol of a flawed society.

"My sense is that the exhibit is multilayered enough to accommodate the people who want the celebratory stuff," said Rosalind Remer, associate professor of history at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., who worked on the exhibit with the park.

"It will be possible to go through and feel good. It will also be possible for people who have been to the Liberty Bell and not felt included — it will allow them to move beyond that."

Park officials had not always intended to present such a complex picture.

Originally, they wanted an expanded exhibition version of the current ranger talks at the angular glass-and-steel bell pavilion on Market Street. There, where the bell was moved in 1976 after spending most of its life in Independence Hall, it stands alone; there are no exhibits.

Each ranger giving bell tours has a different talk, but on several recent visits to the pavilion, the five- to 10-minute presentations tilted heavily toward the physical "facts" of the bell. When did it crack? (Who knows.) What does it weigh? (2,080 pounds.) When did it last ring? (1846.)

Rangers do mention that the bell was named by abolitionists in the 1830s, who seized on its biblical inscription from Leviticus — "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto to all the inhabitants thereof" — to symbolize their cause.

But rangers tend to skip past slavery and its aftermath in the segregated South.

The original plans for the new exhibition center also tended to move over such points quickly — and perhaps included dubious information.

In those original exhibition plans, for instance, an image of an older black man in New Orleans kneeling before the bell was included as an example of the reverence everyone felt for the symbol.

That image, which historians and African Americans objected to as both stereotypical and misleading, has been removed.

Another image — one of Chief Little Bear standing next to the bell in 1915 — now acknowledges that "Native Americans may not have seen the hope of fair treatment and equal rights embodied in the bell."

"I think the exhibition encourages people to ask questions about the bell and its meaning," said Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University.

By expanding the story of the bell to include a more complete treatment of history, the new center zeroes in on "the changing meanings of freedom, the incompleteness of freedom, the crack in the bell," he said.

"That was a huge change," Miller said.

Charles Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, said the new exhibition is an improvement, but falls short.

Blockson said some enslaved Africans are still described as "servants" in the exhibit plans; other important Africans — including Washington's steward, Samuel Fraunces — are ignored.

In the past, Blockson said, African Americans have hardly flocked to see the bell because "they didn't feel any connection."

"People have been bitter, turned off," he said. "They want the full story told. People know about Frederick Douglass. They know about Martin Luther King. They [park officials] haven't gone far enough."

Other African Americans who have pushed the Park Service to acknowledge the presence of slavery on the site and expand discussion of African American history there, agree that more needs to be done. But, they say, the Park Service has made a serious beginning.

"If the history of the Liberty Bell is disclosed, and that means telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it would be relevant to African Americans," said Michael Coard, a Philadelphia lawyer who has urged the Park Service to acknowledge Washington's slaves.

The controversy that prompted these changes is not over. Historians and community groups want park officials to mark the location of the small shed where Washington quartered some of his enslaved stable hands.

Every visitor to the new center will now literally walk on top of that spot, located about five feet from the center's entrance.

The Park Service has come up with a plan to commemorate the enslaved Africans and the President's House, where Washington and John Adams conducted the nation's business in the 1790s. But the park has no money to carry out the $4.5 million plan. The park also is reluctant to mark the slave quarters, arguing that more evidence is needed to justify such a specific commemoration.

 

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