Last week, Philadelphia attorney Michael Coard, who has already made a significant and singular contribution to American history through his advocacy for the construction of the recently opened President’s House exhibit, let the world know, in a very strongly worded public statement, that he is not quite finished fighting yet.
Quite frankly, I was happy to see that Mike was angry. To me, that meant he had not allowed the successful completion of the project’s construction to lull him to sleep. That meant he realized that the project’s mission of creating greater national sensitivity about the inexplicable paradox of celebrating the founding of “America the Beautiful” while condoning the ugliness of constitutionally sanctioned slavery has not been fully achieved.
As evidence of that continuing discomfort with telling the truth about this subject, New York Times “cultural critic at large” and former music critic Edward Rothstein wrote two equally arrogant and dismissive articles on the President’s House, which were published on Dec. 14 and Dec. 29.
Among other dubious comments, Rothstein said the opportunity that had been presented to the President’s House project managers had been “squandered,” due to poor design and execution. He went on to say the project had experienced “tugs of war between the city and the National Park Service and Black community organizations,” that the project’s Oversight Committee had been “contentious,” and that the project had been characterized by “street demonstrations” and “racial debates.” (Hm-m-m, how do you discuss “slavery” without having a racial debate, Mr. Rothstein?) He also wrote that the President’s House has turned out to be “a highly ineffectual mishmash” that has “reached new lows” in the category of “identity exhibits.” Finally, Rothstein said the movement to erect the President’s House was based on an “accusation of injustice” and an “attempt to revise history.”
Those statements alone should have been enough to cause African Americans and other people of good conscience across the country to release torrents of angry e-mails in the general direction of the New York Times, and even to cancel subscriptions to the grossly insensitive and surprisingly ill-informed “national newspaper of record.” (But we don’t do that kind of thing anymore, do we?)
When he used the term “accusation of injustice,” was the Times’ writer implying that, while slavery actually did exist, the “injustice” of it all is still somehow, just “an accusation” and is, at this point, still a debatable issue? When he described the President’s House as “an attempt to revise history” was Rothstein getting defensive about, and stating a preference for, the version of American history that has been up to this point largely devoid of meaningful Black inclusion?
Hey, if just the story of George Washington’s nine slaves has surprised and embarrassed Rothstein and people like him, perhaps they should sit back, get comfortable, and open themselves to learning a few new and perhaps very positive things about the entirety of American history, including the Black part.
As an example, I trust that over time, there will be a greater effort to also focus on the lives and achievements of thousands of former slaves, who were born into slavery and who went on to purchase their own freedom, or to become otherwise emancipated. By the time “American independence” had been declared, the Liberty Bell had been rung, and the Constitution had been signed, they had already accomplished historically significant things for their own families, for other Black Americans and for the nation as a whole.
For example, when the Constitution was signed, James Forten, an African American who was born free and who established his own sail-making company, was already 21 years of age. How many visitors who come to our city from around the world know that, or understand, at all, that Forten eventually became one of Colonial America’s wealthiest Blacks, or that he helped to recruit more than 2,000 African Americans to fight for the U.S. cause during the War of 1812?
How about Absalom Jones, who was born a slave, founded the first Black church in Philadelphia and also founded, together with Richard Allen, the Free African Society, in 1787, the same year the Constitution was signed? At the time, Jones was already 41 years of age and Allen, the founder and first bishop of the AME Church, was 27. In addition, Jones and Allen, with funding made available from Forten, went on to convene representatives from seven states to attend the country’s first convention of African-American leaders, in 1830.
Here’s something else — because they believed that a successful outcome in the Revolutionary War would lead to their freedom from slavery, a significant number of Blacks joined in and fought in that war — on both sides. Strangely, however, the only Black soldier you hear much about in that entire war is Crispus Attucks, who, we’re always reminded, was the first American casualty.
A full 14 years before the Constitution was signed, Phillis Wheatley, who had been born in Africa and had been sold as a slave in Boston, had already become the first African-American woman to publish a book in this country.
And the great Black historian, Charles L. Blockson has reminded us, in his book “African Americans in Pennsylvania,” that there was a slave named Cyrus Bustill, a direct ancestor of Paul Robeson, who bought his freedom and wound up opening a bakery shop in Philadelphia, right next door to the millinery shop owned by his wife, Grace. It was said that Bustill, also a founder of the Free African Society, put his own life at risk to take bread to George Washington’s starving soldiers, at Valley Forge. Who knew?
I imagine the problem for people like Ed Rothstein is that it is highly unlikely that he was ever exposed to any of this information during his undergraduate years at Yale, or during his graduate work at Brandeis (mathematics) or Columbia University (English literature) or his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago (music theory and philosophy).
It really must be difficult for him, as it is for so many others, to accept the very real probability that the version of American history that they have learned and accepted as gospel merely reflected the view of people in this country who enjoyed power, influence and the means to create, approve and publish academic textbooks. It never was the whole story, only that part that they felt comfortable in writing and publishing. It is not surprising, therefore, that, after a while, with constant retelling and reprinting, people actually began to believe that it was all the complete truth. Unfortunately, it never was.
That kind of new information, which expands our collective base of knowledge and brings us all closer to what actually occurred during those times, creates mutual respect for all of the participants, and is the reason why the President’s House is so important.
But in my opinion, as proud as I am of what has already been accomplished, I believe the project is far from finished. The dialogue about what took place in that particular house, in that specific part of the city and during those times, needs to be continued — but it should also include a sharper focus on the economic issues. Who, for example, constructed those old Colonial-era buildings that are so much a part of the character and appearance of the Historic District, and who got paid for doing so? Then, we should fast-forward to the current exhibit, and fully disclose how much of the $11.2 million construction budget was actually shared with African-American contractors and workers.
That, too, would be important to know.
There is still time for that kind of education. Let’s get started.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.