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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 25, 2002
Byline: Blondell Reynolds Brown

Full story must be told at new bell site

Responding to public outcry from representatives of Philadelphia's political, hospitality, social and civic communities, the National Park Service has made a long-overdue commitment to tell a fuller and more inclusive story of the Liberty Bell.

When the new $12.6 million bell pavilion opens next spring, this much-needed story will be told through a series of culturally conscious exhibits designed to inspire, to enlighten, and to enhance the visitor experience. The exhibits will address the issue of liberty - achieved and unachieved.

But as we applaud Park Service officials for working diligently to repair the current Liberty Bell story, we must continue to hold them accountable for carrying out another critically important task: They must commemorate the African men and women who lived and toiled near that site as the slaves of our nation's first president.

I recently cosponsored a City Council resolution - which passed unanimously - providing for just that. Introduced by Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., the resolution calls for the Park Service to take action to commemorate the lives of these men and women appropriately, in a way that reflects their efforts and achievements despite their enslaved status.

They lived in fear, worked tirelessly without pay, and, according to historians, plotted their escape - all near the new Liberty Bell pavilion being constructed at Independence National Historical Park on Sixth Street near Market Street.

There are obvious moral reasons for urging the Park Service to properly honor this history, but our Council resolution also addresses the possible economic ramifications for Philadelphia's hospitality industry if anything other than an appropriate memorialization occurs.

According to the city's Multicultural Affairs Congress, a division of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, one out of every four visitors to our region is African American, a fact that translates into $80 million annually for our economy. The affairs congress is concerned that Philadelphia could jeopardize this lucrative - and influential - tourist trade.

"We are ecstatic that City Council has unanimously passed the resolution introduced by Councilman Goode," said Tanya Hall, the affairs congress' executive director and a supporter of the commemoration effort.

As a board member of both the affairs congress and the visitors bureau, and chair of Council's committee on parks, recreation and cultural affairs, I share Hall's joy. But I will continue to speak out until the Park Service acts positively on this resolution, and listens to our collective voice.

Others have spoken out on the issue as well. On an extremely hot day in July, a group called the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition staged a well-attended demonstration outside of the Liberty Bell, drawing attention to the cause.

"Although the temperature exceeded 100 degrees during our demonstration," said Michael Coard, a lawyer and founding member of the coalition, "that heat was nothing compared to the hell our ancestors endured while enslaved in George Washington's White House stable."

Also in July, and in another unanimous decision, the House Appropriations Committee, through the leadership of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Phila.), voted to require the National Park Service to "appropriately commemorate" the enslaved Africans. In an amendment attached to an Interior Department budget bill, the committee instructed the Park Service to report on the status of the commemoration by next March.

Some have suggested throughout this debate that there is an attempt to shame the memory of George Washington by bringing to light his participation in the inhuman institution of slavery.

But our purpose is not to shame Washington. Our purpose is to hold the Park Service accountable for telling a story of American history that provides visitors to Independence National Historical Park with an honest and accurate depiction of what happened close to that site and under Washington's direction. Done properly - with a sense of sincerity and respect - that is quite a story to be told.

 

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