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Source: New York Times
Date: April 20, 2002
Byline: Dinitia Smith

Slave Site for a Symbol of Freedom

The National Park Service's plans to showcase the Liberty Bell next year in a new $9 million pavilion in Philadelphia have come under attack from historians and local residents, who have accused the Park Service of trying to cover up a less noble element of American history on the same spot: the existence of slave quarters.

The pavilion, to be called the Liberty Bell Center, is part of an ambitious $300 million redesign of Independence National Historic Park. It will be located partly on the former site of the Robert Morris house, where George Washington lived during his presidency and where his slaves slept, ate and worked.

The loose-knit coalition of historians, led by Gary B. Nash, an expert on the American Revolution and Philadelphia history, and the Independence Hall Association, a citizens' group, have asked the Park Service to present a complete explanation of the Morris house's history in the area outside the new center, including a full-size floor plan outlined in stone, a description of the mansion and first-person accounts from the 18th century. They are also asking that the exhibition inside depict slavery more extensively.

The Park Service has refused, saying an elaborate floor plan and detailed information outdoors would be confusing for visitors, although earlier this month it did agree to add an additional interpretive panel to the exhibition planned for the interior of the new center. That panel will be "an examination of the institution of slavery, focusing on its 18th-century Philadelphia context," according to a summary provided by the Park Service.

Those proposals are inadequate, say the historians, who sent a detailed letter this week to Martha B. Aikens, the superintendent of the park, requesting a meeting with her.

"What we are talking about is historical memory," said Mr. Nash, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, who pointed out that it was abolitionists who made the Liberty Bell a symbol of the nation's freedom. "You either cure historical amnesia, or you perpetuate it. This is a wonderful example of trying to perpetuate historical amnesia."

The dispute, which was first reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer, began when Edward Lawler Jr., a local scholar, researched the Morris mansion, which stood at 190 High Street, on the south side of what is today Market Street, one block from Independence Hall.

He said he spent three years delving into original records on the house. "I decided not to trust anything," Mr. Lawler said, that had been written about the mansion before.

At the Library of Congress, he found a copy of a 1785 ground plan of the mansion. He also discovered letters between Washington and his secretary, Tobias Lear, in which they discussed building an extension to the smokehouse for stable slaves.

Mr. Lawler said Washington maintained eight or nine slaves in the house. In 1780 Pennsylvania enacted a law providing for gradual emancipation; it permitted residents of other states living in Pennsylvania to keep slaves. Washington gradually replaced his own slaves with German indentured servants.

Mr. Lawler said he notified the Park Service of his findings a year ago. In January, he published them in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the scholarly journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Robert Morris house, named for the Philadelphia financier who owned it, was where Washington stayed when he presided over the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, and it later served as the executive mansion of the United States from 1790 to 1800. Slaves waited on visiting dignitaries at official functions there during Washington's residence, in addition to caring for the personal needs of the president and his family. Martha Washington's personal slave, Oney Judge, escaped from the house in 1796, as the Washingtons were eating dinner. Washington's prized cook, Hercules, fled in 1797.

After Washington left the house, President John Adams, who was opposed to slavery, moved in. (Benedict Arnold also once lived there and began his treasonous correspondence with the British in the house in 1779). When Adams moved out in 1800, the building was turned into a hotel. The hotel was not a success, and in 1832 it was gutted, leaving only the side walls and foundation standing. The walls were demolished in 1951 to create Independence Mall.

A public toilet now stands on the site, with a small plaque commemorating the house. The Park Service plans to tear down the toilet, mark the site of the house and install a new interpretive panel outside. Future visitors to the Liberty Bell Center will cross more than 140 feet of what was once the president's house, including the slave quarters.

The Liberty Bell is now housed in a glass pavilion a few steps from where the new center will stand.

The fight over how to depict the tragic intersection of slavery and freedom at the heart of the nation's founding is just the latest instance of historians and others challenging the way national monuments interpret and represent history.

"So much of our history is buried," Mr. Nash said. "Millions who went through Monticello would never have known that Jefferson, after his wife died and his daughters grew up, was living as a single white man in a sea of black slaves, let alone that he had sired a child by Sally Hemmings."

The same silence is to be found in Colonial Williamsburg, Mr. Nash said. "It is one of the most visited of all historical sites," he observed. "They have changed their interpretive line greatly in the last 20 years. From the 1930's well into the 80's, it was a story of whites in Williamsburg. But African-Americans represented 50 percent of the population."

Phil Sheridan, a Park Service spokesman, said Ms. Aikens declined to be interviewed about the new center. But in a letter to the Independence Hall Association last October, she wrote that a detailed floor plan would "create a design dissonance" between the new center and the area outside, "potentially causing confusion for visitors."

Ms. Aikens has said that a fuller interpretation of slavery will be offered at the Deshler-Morris House in Germantown, where Washington also lived. Located in another part of the park, it has had relatively few visitors.

Some of the historians have also protested that the Morris house location has not been completely excavated. Park Service archaeologists have excavated five of nine sites there.

"At this point there is nothing there that could be clearly tied to distinctive African-American cultural practices," Mr. Sheridan said. He said further digging would destroy the archaeological sites.

Mr. Nash, the author of "First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), complained in a telephone interview that "this fascinating history is being relegated to this plasticized wayside panel outside the building."

The additional panel that the Park Service has agreed to install inside the center, Mr. Nash said, "speaks mostly to the achievement of American independence and the devotion to the ideal of freedom thereafter."

"This does not address the braided historical relationship between freedom and slavery," he continued, "how interdependent they were, and how the freedom of some was built upon the unfreedom of others."

Mr. Nash said the symbolic importance of Washington's slave quarters could not be overestimated. After Oney Judge escaped to Portsmouth, N.H., he said, "life was hard for her as a free black." He continued: "She was always poor. But at the end of her life, she said one hour of freedom was worth it all, because freedom was so precious to her."

"There are other liberty bells," Mr. Nash added. "There are the bells the slaves' masters made rebellious slaves wear, that would ring if they tried to run away. These are stories a mature democracy that is the most visible in the world should not be burying."

 

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