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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: December 21, 2003
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

A more perfect Philadelphia story

Gone the white-wigged past and the powdered gentry.

Gone the wholly just, omniscient Washington.

Gone the simple bell, unsullied emblem of liberty for all.

Philadelphia's monolithic past is dissolving.

In little more than a year, the image of colonial and revolutionary Philadelphia, fixed in the public mind for decades, has been challenged by scholarship, archaeology, and an intense public interest studded with controversy.

The spirits of free Africans and black slaves — liberated largely by recent archaeological and historical research — have captured the public imagination and assumed a growing importance on Independence Mall's previously pale and immutable stage.

Here is Hercules, Washington's great enslaved chef, escaping from Philadelphia to freedom. Here is Oney Judge, Martha Washington's enslaved personal servant, fleeing the nation's first family and finding freedom in New Hampshire. Here is James Dexter, coachman, buying his freedom and the freedom of his wife; here is Dexter helping former slaves Richard Allen and Absalom Jones forge the seminal Free African Society and the first enduring black churches in the nation.

And the stories are proliferating.

Memorials, museums, tours and educational programs that seek to describe and explain new and emerging views of Philadelphia, its early residents, and the birth of America are in the works.

What is at stake could have enormous consequences — for the city, which has been saddled with what many view as a stodgy, if not exclusionary, sense of its past; for the National Park Service, which is trying to engage an increasingly diverse America; for cultural tourism in a region that is aggressively seeking visitors of color; and for black and white Americans who seem more than ready to connect with the reality of the nation's origins and development.

"You can take the old cliche of 'America starts here' and you realize how profoundly true that is," said Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University. "America is not about a neat manicured lawn. It's all broken up. It's contentious. It's about creating your own African society. It's about creating your own black church. It's about all of that. Any question related to American identity, you'll find it here."

The immediate driving forces of this potentially major transformation include:

The ongoing controversy over how to portray and memorialize slavery in the household of the nation's first president.

The National Constitution Center's incomplete Independence Mall archaeological investigations, including excavations of 18th-century free African homes.

The rediscovery of Dexter, whose house site — a meeting place for 18th-century free blacks — was excavated by the Constitution Center this year.

The reconstitution of the Civil War Library and Museum, now near Rittenhouse Square, into a $20 million Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum, which is seeking a new home, perhaps near Independence Mall.

The plan for a $12 million museum devoted to the birth of black America and to Richard Allen, founder of Society Hill's Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first AME church.

The inauguration of an Underground Railroad walking tour by the Independence National Historical Park, which has turned Sixth Street into Freedom Road. Visitors can begin at Mother Bethel, located at Sixth and Lombard Streets for more than 200 years, and end at Race Street, where the abolitionists' Pennsylvania Hall was burned to the ground by a white mob in 1838.

Unlike any other major cultural initiative here in recent memory, this is rising from an unplanned, grassroots interest. And taken together, the museums, programs and other activities have the potential to alter the city's cultural and historical identity radically.

Philadelphia, long viewed as the birthplace of the American polity, could arguably lay claim to being the birthplace of black America and of contemporary American diversity.

How the Park Service handles the challenge of this transformative tale is widely viewed as critical.

"The Park Service needs to carry the social history bar forward to inspire other stories and to show that the most important entity in town can inspire and get it right," said Rosalind Remer, associate professor of history at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's an amazing crossroads we're at. . . . Visitors will learn that the history does lead to where we are today. There is no disconnect. Philadelphia has a real opportunity here."

It was the Park Service, of course, that inadvertently ignited change by deciding to build its Liberty Bell Center on a site only a few feet from where George Washington quartered household slaves during his presidency.

Public outcry over this decision delayed the center's opening by a year and led to a reworking of exhibits. In October, the center opened with displays exploring slavery, abolitionism, Jim Crow, American Indians, immigrants and civil rights — in marked contrast from the originally planned reverential showcases.

The Park Service must now decide how to commemorate Washington's slaves and the so-called Presidents' House used in the 1790s by Washington and his antislavery successor, John Adams.

Activists and historians have called on the park to open up its planning process. Mary Bomar, superintendent of Independence Park for almost a year, has proved a willing listener, they said.

In February, Bomar plans to bring in outside curators and historians to discuss future directions with park staff. After that, she will begin developing a formal, long-range program and interpretation plan, with extensive public input. New stories and new voices will be at the heart of this process, she said.

A descriptive panel will soon be placed near the front of the Liberty Bell Center, marking the site where Washington's slaves were housed, Bomar said. A permanent commemoration of the site is being discussed.

Bomar also insisted that the park would complete the remaining archaeological work from the Constitution Center's monumental dig north of Arch Street — more than a million artifacts were uncovered.

At least some of that remaining work will be open for public viewing at a park site. And some kind of permanent public program involving those artifacts and the artifacts culled from the homesite of James Dexter, also on the Constitution Center site, is being discussed.

Funding for this is a major, largely unanswered question.

"We need to move beyond the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall," Bomar said. "The Presidents' House and the Dexter dig have opened up the park to a much bigger audience."

That is welcome news to Rev. Jeffrey N. Leath, pastor of Mother Bethel. The Mother Bethel Foundation has launched a $20 million capital campaign to build, endow and operate the Richard and Sarah Allen Center next door to the church. The Delaware River Port Authority already has bestowed about $350,000 on the project, Leath said, and design work on the building and planning for the fund drive continue.

"We want to tell a significant story of freedom and the development of African Americans that is often overlooked," said Leath, who said he would welcome closer ties to nearby Independence Park.

Similarly, E. Harris Baum, a lawyer who is chairman of the newly reconfigured Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia, wants to tell what he believes is the under-told story of slavery, its opponents and its escapees. Independence Mall, with its three million annual visitors, would be an important neighbor, he said.

"I really believe it belongs there," Baum said. "People interested in history, in the Constitution — they'll realize slavery was part of the problem the moment [the signers of the Constitution] picked up their quill pens."

The museum is waiting on the release of a $15 million state capital grant that was earmarked for the museum this year.

These projects — and a more open Park Service — are essential in developing the city as a destination for visitors of color, said Tanya Hall, head of the Multicultural Affairs Congress of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. About 32 percent of the city's visitors are nonwhite, she said, generating about $1 billion in annual revenue.

"It's good news that the Park Service developed an Underground Railroad tour," Hall said. "It's good news that the National Constitution Center did the Dexter dig. The multicultural market is the one we seek. But if we are going to continue, we have to do a better job."

Bomar would not disagree.

"There's going to be a cultural mind shift here," she promised, "and a new vision for the park."

 

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