Plans to update the site have been in the works since 1997 as part of a $300 million renovation and expansion of Independence National Historic Park. This includes the Liberty Bell Center, the $12.9 million future home of the bell. The project was not controversial until an article in a scholarly journal ignited a series of battles by academics and activists seeking more complex presentations of the past.
The argument began in January 2002, when the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography published an article by Edward Lawler Jr., a local historian, about a house called the executive mansion, where George Washington lived as president when Philadelphia was the nation's capital. (It moved to the District of Columbia in 1800.)
Mr. Lawler wrote that the house, most of which was razed in 1832, was adjacent to the site of the new Liberty Bell Center. Washington, a slave owner, had brought slaves to Philadelphia, and, according to Mr. Lawler, he housed them in a structure behind the mansion — right where visitors would be lining up to see the bell.
The article attracted attention, and a handful of scholars formed a group called the Ad Hoc Historians, hoping to persuade the National Park Service, which manages the site, to acknowledge slavery as part of the site's history.
"This was an opportunity to get people interested in the contested nature of freedom," said Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and a member of the Ad Hoc Historians.
"Contested" is a mild description of what happened at the site in George Washington's day. The first president wrote of his concern that his slaves would find the idea of freedom "too great a temptation to resist," and that living there might "make them insolent in a state of slavery."
A house slave, Oney Judge, escaped, confirming his worst fears. Washington fumed at her insolence, and what she described as her "thirst for compleat freedom," with the only result being that nine months later, his prized cook disappeared as well.
For months, the historians' group lobbied the Park Service, and a meeting took place in May 2002. As a result, the Park Service agreed to rework the historic material, addressing the topic of slavery.
Shortly afterward, some people in Philadelphia's black community formed a group called Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which began to put pressure on the Park Service to incorporate Washington's slave quarters into the site. Their efforts ranged from petitions to letter-writing to a street protest.
It paid off. The Park Service commissioned a study to combine the mansion with the bell site. Two companies participated: Vincent Ciulla Design, a museum design firm in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and the Olin Partnership, a landscape architecture firm in Philadelphia that had been involved with the Independence Mall design.
They drew up a plan: outside the center, where visitors line up, a stone outline will mark the place where Washington's house and the slave quarters were. A long curved wall, filled with information about slavery and Washington's slaves, will lead to the Liberty Bell Center entrance.
The aim, according to Jean Weston, a landscape architect with Olin Partnership, was to view the site's history from multiple angles.
"We started by bringing in all of the stakeholders interested in this," Ms. Weston said. "This isn't just about how the rich white men dealt with slavery. It's also about how the black population dealt with it."
There are still many hurdles for the plan, including the estimated $4.5 million financing that has not been raised. But historians think the cost is worth it.
"Visitors will enter the door of the pavilion in a whole new frame of mind," said Gary B. Nash, a member of the Ad Hoc Historians and a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"They will have learned about the site itself and the braiding together of slavery and freedom, and that will get them thinking about the Liberty Bell in a different way."