"All men are created equal."
How often have we heard, read, memorized and recited that stirring phrase, written by our country's Founding Fathers? And yet that phrase always comes tinged with a sense of guilt when we read our history and recall the exclusion of non-whites from that noble philosophy.
Yes, Virginia, George Washington, our Founding Father, who fought for liberty, who would not suffer being a disenfranchised citizen in his own land, actually owned African slaves, right here in the "free" city of Philadelphia, and he failed to see the contradiction in his actions.
This is Black History Month, and race relations in America are often the "elephant in the middle of the room." You probably recall the tremendous controversy that surfaced over plans to build the new Liberty Bell Center, plans which excluded any mention of the deep, dark, long-overlooked secret of George Washington's slaves.
But several individual voices, armed with historic facts and a passion for truth, came forward and demanded that the full story be told. People like Michael Coard, an attorney who founded the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, determined to have the President's House project celebrate the lives of those who had been enslaved while the country was freeing itself from the grip of British tyranny.
You have to admire a playwright like Thomas Gibbons, the Villanova alumnus and Devon resident, who has been writing plays about race and racial issues for the past 10 years, mainly as playwright-in-residence at the InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia. A House With No Walls is his powerful, fictionalized dramatization of the President's House controversy.
Sometimes, things happen by accident but you find a pattern in the events. For example: I happened to be in Palm Beach, visiting my mother two weekends ago, and we went to see a new play at the Florida Stage Playhouse, down the street from her apartment. At the time, I knew nothing about the play or the playwright, except that the local critics had raved about A House With No Walls, and that it had to do with the controversy about erecting the new Liberty Bell Center over the spot that had housed Washington's nine slaves.
We saw the play and were absolutely captivated by the characters Gibbons had created: the African-American militant who demanded that "attention must be paid" to the fate of the nine slaves, including Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal attendant; the African-American conservative Republican-leaning professor, who probably would have taught at Penn, if she were a real person; the Jewish scholar, more liberal but timid, who had once been involved romantically with the professor; the politician who tried to please everyone; and the ghosts of Oney Judge and her brother, Austin.
Returning home, I learned that Gibbons' play was part of a cooperative venture, part of the National New Play Network World Premiere, and that it was showing simultaneously in Philadelphia at the InterAct Theatre. And then I did something I have never done before: I went to see the same play in two different cities, two weekends in a row.
The more I read about A House With No Walls, the more coincidences I found. In the Philly production, the militant character was played by Johnnie Hobbs Jr., a veteran actor and professor at the University of the Arts, whom I had interviewed on my radio show last year.
And when I spoke with Gibbons, he told me that the character had been inspired by Michael Coard, although the playwright had not met him. But I knew Coard as a colleague at WHAT-AM, although I did not know at that time about his amazing advocacy.
My friend Ruth, the history buff, accompanied me last weekend to see Gibbons' remarkable play. She was moved to tears several times by the intensity and passion of the characters and the intrinsic conflicts, both past and present. And I found the Philadelphia cast's interpretation of each character just as valid, although quite different from the rendering in Florida.
I also have a personal stake in whatever plan is adopted for the President's House project. Long ago, my family business, A. Ponnock and Sons toy store, was located at 527-529 Market St. — right down the street from Independence Hall. In the 1950s, the City of Philadelphia leveled that block and built what was supposed to have been a park.
There have been many reincarnations of the Independence National Historic Park area. Hopefully, because of the Oversight Committee working on the President's House project, people like Michael Coard, and representatives of Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady — both of whom who cooperated to secure a multi-million-dollar grant from the federal government for the project- the full story of our Founding Father will finally be told. The noble aspirations as well as the hideous long-kept secret of Washington's slaves, and of his having passed laws to enable him and other slave owners to capture any slaves brave enough to try to escape thralldom.
Gibbons' play illuminates the controversy we all read about on the front pages of the newspaper, creating complex, believable human beings. And he and the wonderful actors who bring his creations to life make us think hard about the sordid chapter in our collective history that tainted even the record of George Washington.
"NO MORE LIES!" shouts Johnnie Hobbs' character, Salif Camara. It's a good mantra for all of us.