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Source: Kansas City Star
Date: October 17, 2007
Byline: Steve Penn

Column: Shrine to freedom will also shine light of history on slavery

The nation's ultimate paradox is also a shrine to the power of activism.

Next to the Liberty Bell Center, home to one of America's most cherished symbols of freedom, people were held in bondage. What's more, they were enslaved by the nation's first president.

The saga surrounding the President's House, or first White House, is just one of the captivating stories I heard while in Philadelphia for the annual gathering of the Trotter Group, a gathering of black columnists from across the country.

The facts were explained in detail by Michael Coard, a Philadelphia lawyer active in the push to recognize the slaves held at the President's House.

Five years ago, Coard learned that the Liberty Bell was moving a half-block to its new home. The new location turned out to also be the site of the old President's House. When Coard learned that President George Washington housed nine slaves there, he jumped into action.

"When you go to the new Liberty Bell location, it's a mere five feet from the main entrance to where Washington's slave quarters were," Coard said. "As you enter this heaven of liberty, you literally have to cross the hell of slavery."

Washington moved into the President's House in late November 1790. He and John Adams occupied it until the capital moved to Washington in 1800.

It was common knowledge that Washington had 300 enslaved Africans at his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

"What we didn't know was that he brought eight and then a ninth slave here to Philadelphia and housed them," Coard said.

Coard's view of Washington didn't improve when he learned that the nation's first president skirted Pennsylvania slavery laws.

In 1780, a law known as the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act was passed. It required that slaves brought to Pennsylvania and kept there be freed after six months.

Washington's solution: rotate them.

"Washington would bring slaves into Pennsylvania," Coard said. "Then he'd take them to New Jersey or take them back to Virginia, then bring them back. Then he'd start the clock all over again."

After learning about the slaves, Coard formed ATAC, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a grassroots effort that wrote letters demanding that the National Park Service honor the nine slaves, especially if the President's House was going to be recognized.

"We kept pushing and pushing," Coard said.

In mid-2005, Coard's group succeeded in persuading the National Parks Service to include a remembrance to the slaves. That year, ATAC received $5.1 million in city and federal funds to design and build the slave remembrance.

"Our little ragtag group had forced the most powerful government on the planet to go from denying to designing," Coard said.

Which brings us to this summer. In July, an archaeological study made some unexpected discoveries. The dig uncovered a kitchen, an underground passageway that slaves used to go from the kitchen to the "big house," and the remains of a bow window that Washington would look out of.

While design plans were still percolating, officials decided to pour earth back over the site in July to protect the architectural remains.

For months, officials have been trying to figure out the best way to incorporate the excavation findings into the President's House commemoration. What they came up with should be released soon.

Coard wrapped up his remarks by explaining why he's so passionate about the issue. He recalled visiting the Liberty Bell as a child and seeing the way whites responded so enthusiastically to the history.

"We want little black boys and little black girls to be as proud of their ancestors' contributions to this country as little white boys and girls are," Coard said.

The finished product promises to be like a cold slap across the face of visitors. To get to the symbol of freedom, visitors will have to learn about the pain of slavery first.

While it represents the ultimate contradiction, the site will also become a symbol of the power of activism. As a result of Coard's steadfast determination and leadership, the site where the symbol of freedom is displayed ultimately will reflect the right amount of contradiction, irony and truth.

 

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