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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: December 25, 2002
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Planners rethink slavery, liberty project

The story of bondage may get more space at the Liberty Bell Center. The Park Service plans a public meeting next month.

A new focus on the African American experience is under discussion at Independence National Historical Park as exhibit designers for the new Liberty Bell Center wrestle with the issue of slavery and how to present it.

At a meeting earlier this month, designers for the National Park Service outlined ideas that could mark a significant departure for Independence Mall and for the way the Liberty Bell has been defined for the public.

When the $12.6 million Liberty Bell Center opens next year, for instance, it could feature what one of those who attended the meeting called "a contemplative space on African Americans" located to the north and west of the building. This area might contain exhibit materials related to slavery and freedom in America.

The design team - the Olin Partnership of Philadelphia and Vincent Ciulla Design of Brooklyn - also suggested the placement of statuary or some kind of physical imagery commemorating the eight slaves who attended George Washington during his presidency in the 1790s.

Controversy erupted last spring when it was reported that the entrance to the new bell pavilion would be situated over the site where Washington quartered slaves during his presidency. The National Park Service had no plans to mention Washington's slaves in exhibits at the new center or to explore the broader issue of slavery in the land of the free.

The controversy, however, focused unusual public attention on people and events 200 years ago and on a landscape that seemed fixed and varnished in public memory. And the questions that have emerged since then pose perhaps the most difficult interpretive task faced by the Park Service in the 30 years it has been steward of the nation's shrines in Philadelphia:

What is the meaning of liberty in a nation built on racial bondage? What role did enslaved African Americans play in the early years of the country? What challenges were faced by free African Americans as they tried to make their way in a land of often-hostile whites?

After the public outcry over Washington's slaves - which prompted Congress to require a commemoration - the Park Service sent designers back to the drawing boards.

Park designers also are considering how best to commemorate the President's House itself, which was situated near Sixth and Market Streets. It was occupied by Washington and the antislavery John Adams during their successive presidencies in the 1790s.

Those plans are not well advanced, although the designers are seriously considering a ground outline of the house's footprint, said some who attended the meeting.

Park Service officials say they plan a public meeting on the issues in January. The proposals presented at last week's meeting are just ideas at this point, officials emphasized.

Nevertheless, participants at the closed meeting, which included park officials, designers, historians and African American leaders, said they were optimistic the Park Service would continue to focus on the slavery issue.

"Slavery will be a major part of the design," said Edward Lawler Jr., an independent scholar who attended the meeting. "The President's House will become a major site for African American history, as well as American history, if what was heard [at the meeting] goes through. It's such a change."

Harry Harrison, president of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, said he was encouraged but suggested the Park Service would need considerable help.

"It's important for the park and all the cultural institutions in the area to take some responsibility in interpreting the history of early America," Harrison said. "There is a responsibility to tell the truth, describe the situation, illustrate the drama in a way where we can at least be honest. We don't have to fabricate and create a Disneyland where everyone is happy. This is an opportunity for Philadelphia to set a tone for the nation. We should not be afraid."

Since the controversy over Washington's slaves erupted, other sites of interest to African Americans have emerged all over Independence Park. On the northernmost block of the mall, where the National Constitution Center is under construction between Arch and Race Streets, an important enclave of free blacks has been identified.

Archaeologists believe the home site of James Dexter, a former slave and a founder of the city's first black church as well as the first black self-help group in the country, is situated there on North Fifth Street - where a bus depot will go.

Also on that block, two other free blacks with important early church and antislavery connections have been identified: Robert Venable, who lived on North Sixth Street, and Israel Burgow, who lived on Cresson's Alley. About 60 free blacks lived on that block, along with wealthy antislavery Quakers and German and Irish immigrants.

Washington and other slaveholders, such as James Madison, viewed the presence of free blacks in Philadelphia with trepidation. Both men worried that their own slaves would be unduly influenced by proximity to such enclaves.

Not surprisingly, one of the major interests of free blacks at the time - as expressed by the Free African Society, founded in 1787 by Dexter, Richard Allen and others - was in helping those still enslaved to escape.

Two of the slaves Washington kept in Philadelphia - Oney Judge, Martha's maid, and Hercules, Washington's chef - fled the household to freedom. Oney later said she had help from Philadelphia's resident free blacks.

The growing magnitude of the story and its interconnections has led Harrison to recommend the Park Service join with area cultural institutions in establishing some kind of "heritage trail."

"You can't tell the whole story on that mall," Harrison said. "I said, 'Let's build a heritage trail.' And I offered my museum [located at Seventh and Arch Streets]... . Here is an opportunity for the National Park Service and other cultural institutions to share this experience with the rest of the country. Let's use this opportunity to heal our conscience. Let's think about everyone as human beings."

 

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