No one but Ed Lawler knew or cared about what was buried under the women's restroom at Sixth and Market Streets. But then his article, The President's House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark, hit the streets. It wasn't really news that two presidents lived a block from Independence Hall when Philadelphia was the nation's capital. But this was news: George and Martha had brought nine of their enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon to a city where slavery was outlawed â€“and found a loophole to keep them there.
Then, irony of ironies, the national park named "Independence" unknowingly planned a new home for the Liberty Bell on that very spot. Visitors would walk right over the place where the Washingtons quartered enslaved Africans. Scholarly findings don't make the news every day, but this did. On Sunday, March 24, 2002 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran this headline across the top of page one: Echoes of slavery at Liberty Bell site.
This spot, now considered sacred ground for its history and memory (if not for its inherent conflict and irony) is mandated by Congress "to appropriately commemorate" these stories. Is the proposed interpretation appropriate? Through May 3rd, panels for the outdoor site are on view at the Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Market. They can also be viewed at the President's House website.
Apparently, there's much to say about the subject and the commemoration seems unable to accomplish its task succinctly. In all, 10 panels in an open-air plan (seen here) are weighed down with 5,600 words. That's 1,150 more than the U.S. Constitution; it's 20 times longer than the Gettysburg Address. In his landmark speech on race at the nearby National Constitution Center, Obama used 750 fewer words.
The first panel begins with an book-like apology: History is not neat. It is complicated and messy. It is about people, places and events which have both admirable and deplorable attributes." Four panels average nearly 1,000 words each, pummeling visitors with facts, narratives and timelines. (The wordiest one is illustrated here — click to enlarge).
Visitors who take on this text will be at it for more than half an hour. But visitors are visitors. If the sheer density of text doesn't do them in on a pleasant day, what will it do for them when the weather isn't cooperating? The stories have their advocates, but who's looking out for the visitor?
This is supposed to be a commemoration, not a book chapter. Visitors who make through the first nine panels (and the five wall-mounted videos that have not yet been produced) will arrive exhausted at the tenth. Here are words that need to be said: "We dedicate this space to the memory of nine people of African descent who were brought to this house by George and Martha Washington. They were known as Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Hercules, Joe, Moll, Oney Judge, Paris, and Richmond. We commemorate their lives as well as those whose names and lives remain unknown to us." (You can read the entire panel here.) That's 262 words. How many more are really necessary?
What do you think? Post comments here, or download the official comment form and send it in. Be succinct if you do have something to say. Otherwise, you're sure to lose your audience.
Pictures courtesy of ushistory.org