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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: November 7, 2004
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Forum furthers memorial to slaves

Independence Park officials have agreed to commemorate Washington's servants and pledged to find funding.

Theresa Molloy, visiting from Toledo, walked to the Liberty Bell Center on a recent afternoon.

Did she know what lay beneath the stone deck she was walking over?

"No," she said. "What do you mean?"

The first presidential mansion once stood on that ground, she was told, and directly beneath her feet, George Washington's slaves once toiled and slept.

"My goodness," a somewhat flustered Molloy told a reporter, shifting her feet as though the granite flagstones were suddenly hot. "I had no idea."

And that is a frustrating problem, say many, including officials of the National Park Service.

More than two years ago, Congress directed the Park Service "to appropriately commemorate" Washington's slaves at Independence Park, yet the site lies vacant and unacknowledged.

Now, after a false start that generated considerable acrimony in January 2003, park officials are trying to reach a consensus on what should be commemorated and how. Late last month, they convened a lengthy and well-attended forum on the subject, listening to thoughts of dozens of members of the public, including many from the African American community.

Mary Bomar, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, said a few days ago that she and her staff agreed that the spot in front of the Liberty Bell Center should be demarcated as the site where some of Washington's slaves had lived.

Previously, some park officials had resisted that idea on the grounds that it could not be documented conclusively. In the absence of such proof, they maintained, the spot should not be marked as slave quarters.

African Americans, backed by a number of scholars, disputed that position. After the forum, which was held Oct. 30, Bomar said her staff now accepted the argument that slaves and white servants lived on the spot.

That could be the basis for the placement of some kind of temporary acknowledgment as soon as possible, Bomar said. A larger plan to commemorate Washington's slaves — there were at least nine here — and the Presidents' House, where Washington and then John Adams lived and worked, has no funding.

Despite the lack of money, which was challenged by many community activists at the forum, Bomar pledged that she would not abandon the project.

"We're not sweeping anything under the rug," Bomar told the forum. "Nothing would suit me better than to move forward on this project."

Michael Coard, a leader of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which has been pushing for a full commemorative memorial on the site, said the Park Service needed to proclaim, unequivocally, the presence of Washington's slave quarters and its inhabitants.

Many attending the forum backed that view in no uncertain terms. Coard and others have called on the park service to state "the truth," and they see the placement of the slave quarters at the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center as key to that.

If the quarters were clearly marked, visitors to the bell, in Coard's words, would metaphorically "pass from the hell of slavery into the heaven of liberty" as they entered the center.

Symbolically, commemoration then acknowledges not only the slaves who once lived on that ground, but also, by extension, the nation's slave-holding past, its enslaved forebears, and the deep wrongs suffered here — even at the hands of the most exalted Founding Father.

Should it be realized in the foreseeable future, the commemoration at Independence Park would become the first federal memorial to slavery in the nation.

"We have to tell the truth, whether it hurts or not," said Charles Blockson, curator of the Blockson collection of African American materials at Temple University. "In the city of Philadelphia, it's never been told."

And in the most pointed comment of the day, Blockson summed up the relationship between the slavery memorial and commemoration of the entire Presidents' House site.

"I don't give a damn about the Presidents' House," he said. "We wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the African American community."

Bomar, who has placed the memorial on the list of the park's top 10 needs, said Monday that she intended to push agency officials here and in Washington to come up with the funds for the $4.5 million project.

The city has pledged $1.5 million already.

She also is hoping that others will seek funds from the private sector, something she is prohibited from doing by federal law.

Assertions of park poverty, however, do not impress Coard and others from the black community. They note that Interior Department officials claim that the Park Service operations budget for 2005 is at $1.8 billion, the highest "per person, per visitor, and per acre... in its history," as assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett noted recently.

Bomar said much of that funding is for post-9/11 security and for activities and projects that have been waiting in line for years.

Information, comments and opinions from the forum will be studied to determine what themes might be included in the slavery and Presidents' House commemorations. Another public meeting will then be held.

"I don't want to lose the momentum of this," Bomar said. "There is a lot of passion. It's not just about the Presidents' House site. It's much bigger than that."

 

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