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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: December 25, 2009
Byline: Carolyn Davis

Opening of President's House pushed back

The opening of the President's House on Independence Mall will be pushed back to next fall, to allow further revision of interpretive materials so that they better portray the place of slavery in the nation's early days.

The announcement came from Mayor Nutter's administration, which is managing the $8.5 million project, and Independence National Historical Park, which ultimately will run the site.

The house had been scheduled for a July 4, 2010, grand opening, and it was hoped that President Obama would attend. The nation's first African American president will be invited to the rescheduled opening, said Rosalyn J. McPherson, project director.

"We wanted to take a step back and figure out a more compelling way to tell this complex story," McPherson said yesterday.

The delay, announced late Wednesday, was not entirely unexpected. The site's explanatory displays have been the grist of controversy over how to balance describing the home of Presidents George Washington and John Adams, the little-known stories of the nine slaves who toiled there, and the reality that few Americans even knew that there had been slaves in the nation's first executive mansion until the site was excavated in recent years.

As criticisms from the project's Oversight Committee and others persisted, the self-imposed July deadline crumbled in the face of the need to create the most accurate and balanced displays possible, officials said.

"I don't really see it as a postponement, I see it as an extension," said attorney and Oversight Committee member Michael Coard. "We want to get this thing right."

Numerous historians, activists, and groups, including Coard and his Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, made clear that they thought the proposed materials — originally designed by the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based American History Workshop — underplayed the history of slavery at the President's House and, more broadly, in Philadelphia. But there also was concern that the house's place in the governing of the newborn nation also be served.

In Coard's words, "A lot of blacks thought the project might be too white, and a lot of white folks thought the project might be too black."

More critiques were given at two meetings, Dec. 11 and last Friday, attended by project officials, the Oversight Committee, and African American historians new to the process.

Changes to the interpretive materials were presented by Smithsonian Institution historian Faith Davis Ruffins, said Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University and a member of a historians group that has followed the site's development. But concerns persisted that even after Ruffins' revisions, the narrative was inadequate.

Temple historian Charles Blockson, who also attended, said yesterday, "I was just flabbergasted. It still was an inaccurate portrayal."

The panels continued to display stereotypical images of "docile" Africans and incomplete information, said Blockson, who is a member of Generations Unlimited, an activist group on African American historical issues that the Park Service had consulted on the project.

McPherson noted that finding appropriate graphics from that time was a challenge.

"You don't have many pictures of African Americans in flattering ways," she said.

McPherson and Coard acknowledged that not everyone will be pleased with whatever shape the final exhibit takes, but said the process was moving in a good direction toward an opening next fall.

The added time will be used to create full, multimedia biographies of the nine slaves. By telling their stories through written words and in video dramatizations, the nine will become "the sentient human beings they are supposed to be," Coard said.

The memorial site also will have cell phones available on which visitors can hear more information about Washington and the Revolutionary War; about Hercules, the slave who was the first president's chef; and other topics, Coard said.

McPherson expects to give the Oversight Committee new plans within the next month. She said there will be more meetings with the Oversight Committee, as well as a public meeting.

But, she noted, decisions will have to be made soon.

"We're not going to delay it much longer, because there are federal funds that will expire," she said. "There is no reason it can't be done by the fall."

 

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