The move is a result of public pressure. It started with a group of white historians and scholars. Then a group of African American community leaders took up the charge. They were joined by three Philadelphia congressmen, and a series of private meetings followed.
In these meetings and in subsequent public statements, the U.S. Park Service has said it will go to great lengths to tell the whole story of slavery. But I am skeptical about this promise.
Before I started writing this piece, park service officials discussed their positions with me and asked me to attend a face-to-face briefing.
I did not attend because I think that the park service should hold public meetings on this very important issue. Park Service official Dennis R. Reidenbach has promised to hold public forums to discuss the issues. One need only point out that the controversy is almost a year old. Maybe it's about time for public input?
I agree with Charles Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collections at Temple University. He said: "Until the Park Service publicly shows us its plans and acquires adequate funding, their promise is as vaporous as the Emancipation Proclamation."
Blockson has been a consultant on proposed changes in the park's presentations. He had attended several meetings with the Park Service and other historians, scholars, and black community leaders. Those people are serious. As Edward Lawler Jr., an authority on George Washington, puts it, "The commitment is real... to getting it right."
But Blockson did not attend a meeting with the Park Service Wednesday. Invitees were a select group of 43, including historians and designers.
Michael Cord, an attorney who heads the group Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), did attend the meeting.
"The officials are now saying the right thing, but I won't believe them until they begin to act on their word," said Cord.
ATAC's first priority, said Cord, is to ensure a fitting commemoration of African Americans' contributions and sacrifices in the building of the nation.
The controversy surrounding Independence National Park surfaced in January. At issue is whether the park has adequately acknowledged the presence of slaves in the lives of important Revolutionary leaders. One point of contention is the new home of the Liberty Bell, now under construction. Does it sufficiently acknowledge the different meanings of the Liberty Bell (some affirmative, some ironic) in the slaving and antislavery movements?
Also at issue is the Robert Morris mansion, occupied by Washington during his 1789-1797 presidency. Morris was a businessman with some experience in the slave trade; Washington was a slave-owner, and slave quarters have been identified in digs at the site.
The sites are in the district of Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, who has supported the various groups' demands from the beginning. Brady, along with U.S. Reps. Joseph Hoeffel and Chaka Fattah, has said that appropriate commemoration of the roots of slavery should be reflected on the sites.
Fattah, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said that he will fight to get more funding for the project.
It's unclear when and how much action will take place. In an interview this week, the Park Service's Reidenbach told Inquirer reporter Stephan Salisbury that the service lacks enough funds to support all of its plans.
So until extensive public meetings take place, all we have is the Park Service promise. Which isn't a lot. History proves that promises to tell the full story have not been kept. If people are skeptical, you can't call them oversensitive.