Just a few short years ago, the path seemed clear for Independence Park: Build a new home for the Liberty Bell, help out on construction of the National Constitution Center, spin more yarns about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Great Ideas.
It didn't quite work out that way. History intervened.
Spurred on by an engaged public, the park has launched sweeping new projects – a unique public archaeology lab and a slavery memorial, designed to portray the authentic, contradictory multiracial life of early America.
It's not your Founding Fathers' park anymore, officials say.
" 'We the people' applies to everyone who was part of what made this nation," said acting park Superintendent Dennis Reidenbach. "We need to tell the truth. We need to make sure we're presenting historically accurate information, and we need to tell it in a compelling way."
Tomorrow, park officials will officially inaugurate the Independence Living History Center, Third and Chestnut Streets – the old park visitors' center – with a day-long archaeology program.
There, work will commence on the one million artifacts culled from the Constitution Center's building site, widely seen as one of the nation's most significant urban-archaeological finds ever.
The excavation, which encompassed an entire neighborhood that included one of the city's largest 18th-century gatherings of free blacks, already has propelled the park to a serious exploration of early black America and has rescued several forgotten figures. Among these was James Oronoko Dexter, a major leader in early black America who lived on North Fifth Street between Arch and Race Streets.
Dexter, whose homesite was excavated in 2003 before a bus depot was built next to the Constitution Center, was virtually unknown until broad archaeological work began in 2000. Similarly, little had been known or said publicly by the park about the many slaves in George Washington's Philadelphia household.
But controversy erupted three years ago when the park inadvertently situated the new Liberty Bell Center so that visitors would enter the building by walking over the old – unmarked – Washington slave quarters.
Public outcry first compelled complete revision of exhibitions in the Liberty Bell Center, where discussion of slavery and racism, immigration and the treatment of women were added. Congress than directed the National Park Service to commemorate Washington's slaves, as well as the life of the Presidents' House, Sixth and Market Streets, where Washington and John Adams conducted their presidencies.
Similarly, public outcry compelled the park and Constitution Center not to leave the Dexter homesite unexamined beneath the bus depot.
"Justice delayed is not always justice denied," said lawyer Michael Coard, a founder of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which has pushed the Park Service to commemorate the Africans who lived in bondage in the Washington household. "Even though the Park Service could have done this 31 years ago, we're here now, and I believe we're moving forward in good faith."
Coard says the Park Service has been quietly aware for more than three decades that Washington held slaves on the site, including Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal servant, and master chef Hercules, who both escaped while in Philadelphia.
The stories of Judge and Hercules and the other slaves, as well as the Washington and Adams servants and families, will be told as part of the slave memorial and Presidents' House commemoration.
Officials say they now have adequate funding for the $5 million-plus project, including $1.5 million from the city, which is managing the design process. Mayor Street has said he wants the whole project open by 2007.
The archaeology lab, free and open to the public seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., actually began operation over the summer with work on the 30,000 artifacts pulled from the Dexter site. Archaeologists from Kise Straw & Kolodner are now conducting the laboratory work – cataloging, describing, fitting the pieces together.
Jed Levin, park Service archaeologist, said a much richer picture of Dexter is now emerging from the lab and parallel archival research.
One part of the Dexter site can now be dated absolutely to the decade of his residence in the 1790s, Levin said. This is, in essence, a small backyard garbage dump that contained, among other things, a green-glaze Wedgware plate, "a not-inexpensive piece"; some exotic marine coral, and a considerable amount of berry seeds and pork bones.
That may not sound like King Tut's treasure, but even the presence of seeds can be revealing. Levin now wonders, for instance, whether the Dexter household was making and selling pies to augment the family income. (Dexter was a coachman).
Ongoing research also has uncovered at least one extraordinary document. It appears to be a petition to the Second U.S. Congress from about 1791 calling for gradual emancipation of slaves and their resettlement in Sierra Leone. Dexter signed, as did other members of the Free African Society, the nation's first black self-help and rights organization.
Dexter is believed to be a founder of the society, along with Absolam Jones and Richard Allen. Dexter also was a founder of Jones' African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the city's first black church. Tomorrow's program, cosponsored by the Philadelphia Archaeology Forum, includes screening of a documentary film about the Dexter excavation as well as talks, children's activities and lab tours.