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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: December 16, 2010
Byline: Annette John-Hall

Annette John-Hall: Finally, a U.S. monument commemorates its slaveholding past

I watched with a lump in my throat as they cut the ribbon at the President's House site Wednesday.

Didn't think I would be so moved. But just seeing the names of the nine enslaved men and women of African descent etched into the granite wall of the President's House warmed my heart despite the bitter cold.

I couldn't take my eyes off those names, the chattel slaves of George and Martha Washington, who symbolically represent all of those invisible, enslaved Africans on whose backs this nation was built: Austin. Paris. Hercules. Christopher Sheels. Richmond. Giles. Oney Judge. Moll. Joe.

The nine ranged in age from 16 to 50. World-class chefs, along with quilters, seamstresses, and stablemen, among them. But they toiled in bondage for most of their lives for a slaveholder president in a city that boasted the largest free black population in an infant nation.

Imagine how these men and women must have yearned for freedom, especially at a time when freedom was all around them. It's not surprising that Judge and Hercules wanted to escape — and did.

Now, finally, their stories can be told and no longer be, as Mayor Nutter so eloquently put it, swept "into the dustbin of history."

At that moment, standing on the hallowed ground of the President's House, believed to be the nation's first commemoration of slavery, well, I felt proud to be an American.

Built with courage

Don't get me wrong. I love my country. Like I've always said, I'm as American as sweet potato pie.

But I totally understood Michelle Obama's sentiment when, during her husband's presidential campaign, she said, "For the first time in my adult life, I'm really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."

The first lady was talking inclusion. She expressed pride at the fact that voters would have enough guts, given the sordid history of race relations in this country, to elect an African American president.

It was that kind of courage that gave rise to the President's House. Despite all the discussion, debate, and delays, a coalition of right-minded people had enough conviction to come together and create a memorial that calls out "the haven of liberty vs. the hell of slavery," says Philadelphia lawyer Michael Coard of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition.

Well, somebody has to tell it. After all, American history is fraught with hypocrisy, one of the reasons why it's so hard to talk honestly about race relations today.

As a nation, we couldn't have found a better place to have this conversation. The juxtaposition of slavery and freedom, the President's House and the Liberty Bell, reminds me of the museum in Birmingham, Ala., that commemorates the struggles for equality during the civil-rights movement.

As you leave the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, you stare right at the stained-glass window of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley — were killed when the Klan bombed the church in 1963. It's a jarring sight. But it completes the picture and tells the whole story, no matter how wrenching it may be.

When it comes to the subject of race, "some people think we push too much, other folks think we don't push enough," said the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, who delivered the prayer of dedication.

The memorial is a "great step forward," he said, "because it will connect slavery with the President's House and deal with that [racial] tension."

We can only hope. If the interest of citizens of all races who gathered at the site's archaeological dig two summers ago is any sign, the President's House is sure to keep the conversation going.

Because it's all of our history. True history.

 

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