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Source: The Louisiana Weekly
Date: November 22, 2004
Byline: Edmund W. Lewis

Philadelphia Freedom

It looks like all that hype about Philadelphia being the city of brotherly love is just that, hype.

That's the only conclusion one can draw after hearing about the latest controversy to emerge from Philly (Remember the wrongful framing and conviction of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal and the infamous MOVE bombing?).

This time it's about an organization taking its sweet time in acknowledging America's shameful support of the peculiar institution."

It's been more than two years since Congress directed the National Park Service to "appropriately commemorate" the enslaved Africans who were forced to toil for George Washington at the first presidential mansion in Philadelphia, just a hop and skip away from the site where the Liberty Bell is prominently displayed.

To date, nothing has been done, prompting some in African America to raise their voices in protest.

Some might ask why it's such a big deal. The answer is simple: Although it claims to have moved far beyond its shameful past, the United States has never fully acknowledged or made amends for its support for and participation in the trafficking and enslavement of human beings in the formative years of the republic. The commemoration of the enslaved Africans owned by the nation's first president would constitute the first federal memorial to slavery in the United States. The first. More than 135 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, this would be the first.

The National Park Service's refusal thus far to take concrete steps to erect a slavery memorial underscores how far we have to go. After all these years, it's still difficult for black and white Americans to have an open, honest dialogue about race.

"We have to tell the truth, whether it hurts or not," Charles Blockson, curator of the Blockson collection of African-American materials at Temple University, told the Associated Press. "In the city of Philadelphia, it's never been told."

Funny thing about Philadelphia is that the last time I checked Philly was far above the Mason-Dixie line. My point? There are still a lot of people who insist that slavery, bigotry and ignorance are byproducts of Southern culture and history. But here in the self-described cradle of American freedom, a Quaker stronghold, you find the nation's first president's decision to buy and exploit enslaved Africans reverberating to this very day.

Although our African forebears were worthy enough to serve the first American president, build many of the hallowed halls of Ivy League colleges and universities and provide the labor that built the Capitol building and White House in Washington, DC, there has been very little acknowledgement of the role Africans played in the growth and development of the United States.

Until recently, there had been a heated debate about the accuracy of claims that enslaved Africans lived alongside white servants. That changed after an Oct. 30 forum which prompted Park Superintendent Mary Bomar and her staff to concede that the area had once been used to house enslaved Africans.

While the National Park Service now plans to acknowledge that slice of American history in some small way, it has yet to present a larger blueprint for commemorating the presence of Washington's human chattel at the Presidents' House, where Washington and John Adams once lived, citing a lack of funding.

"We're not sweeping anything under the rug," Bomar is quoted as saying at the forum.

"Nothing would suit me better than to move forward on this project."

Thus far, the city of Philadelphia has earmarked $1.5 million for the $4.5 million project. Bomar plans to seek additional funding from officials in Philadelphia and Washington.

Leading the fight to get the project done in Philly is Avenging The Ancestors Coalition, a broad-based coalition of activists, elected officials, clergy, scholars and others who have come together to honor the enslaved Africans who were dehumanized, exploited and oppressed by Europeans and to ensure that their story is incorporated into the new Liberty Bell Pavilion.

To its credit, the group has shown no sign of backing down in its campaign for a permanent marker as part of the $13 million Liberty Bell Pavilion.

"We regular black folks got together and formed this Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and we ordinary black folks forced the most powerful government in the world to go from denying to designing," activist attorney Michael Coard, a spokesman for ATAC told ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes. "First, they denied the relevance of George Washington having slaves. We wrote letters, we demonstrated, we signed petitions so that they did a hundred and eighty degree turn. They stopped denying and now they are designing. The design they came up with included some input from our community but not enough input. So what we're trying to do now is get more black designers, more black architects, more black sculptors, and more black construction workers to get in on the planning of this. Once we get that we can take the preliminary designs we come up with and expand upon that."

It's clear that the permanent marker for enslaved Africans owned by the nation's first president will be erected. What's uncertain is how much protesting and organizing will have to take place before this nation does right by its African ancestors.

Why is it so difficult for the nation to come up with funds to pay for such a worthwhile project but so easy for Washington to squander its financial resources on projects that do very little to heal this nation's long-festering wounds? Why is it okay to sing the praises of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson but so difficult for the nation to admit that both men were slaveholders? Why is it always such a colossal challenge for America to do the right thing? Each of us should commit to doing everything we can to convince those who represent us on Capitol Hill to do everything in their power to bring this project to fruition. Given the enormous sacrifices our ancestors made, that's the very least elected officials and the rest of us can do.

 

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