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Source: The Philadelphia Tribune
Date: January 17, 2003
Byline: Kendall Wilson

Park project will recognize U.S. slave era

Despite several spirited rebuttals, there was a strong sense overall that the Independence National Historical Park's preliminary designs for the President's House on Independence Mall will prominently recognize the existence of slaves under George Washington's first administration and Washington's personal ownership of several slaves.

The National Park Service (NPS) and INHP plan to move the Liberty Bell to an area near Sixth and Chestnut Streets. But critics of the initial plan said the federal agencies had ignored the fact that President Washington resided in the first "White House" — then known as the Robert Morris Mansion — "holding Africans in bondage in the stable area slave quarters," in the words of a group called Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), a broad-based coalition of community activists, elected officials, historians, civic organizations, religious leaders and "other culturally concerned taxpaying voters of the Philadelphia area."

Before a standing room-only audience at the African-American Museum at Philadelphia (AAMP) Wednesday evening, Independence Park Acting Superintendent Dennis Reidenbach unveiled preliminary designs for the site of the President's House which not only prominently recognizes the eight African slaves Washington owned, but installations and other acknowledgements that honor enslaved Africans in America.

And while Reidenbach's and others' presentations generated occasional outbursts of applause, the question and answer session that followed offered its share of critics and skeptics.

Noted historian and author Dr. Charles Blockson felt that still too many Blacks would go on unrecognized and suggested a broader inclusion of slaves and free Blacks involved in Washington's administration.

Omjasis Kentu, director of the Grass Root Political Network, said he did not know how the project would be funded and questioned what economic dividends the project presented to Blacks.

Community activist Sacaree Rhodes blasted the whole project as "racist" and said she did not trust any of the plans on the table.

But many saw the plus side.

Dr. Clement Alexander Price, director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University — Camden, said the project would produce for the first time in the country a "monument to African-Americans."

ATAC spokesman Michael Coard called the session "very effective" and that he was "ecstatic" over the evening's developments.

"Frankly, I was pleased with the preliminary draft," said Coard, whose group has been the Park Service's loudest critic. "I thought it was a spirited discussion, and that some people may have gotten distracted and lost their focus.

"But to go from complete denying to designing is a monumental prize for us. We got them to make a 180 degree turnaround. Can you imagine a community group forcing the federal government to listen to our concerns and to begin implementing our input?

"Now, I think we are on our way. And I don't think the $4.5 million in funding will be that difficult to obtain, because we are calling on Congressmen (Chaka) Fattah, (Robert) Brady and (Joseph) Hoeffel to go to bat for us in Washington. Fattah already has made sure certain funding will be heading our way. And we are calling on Senators (Arlen) Specter and (Rick) Santorum.

"But I can't be more pleased with what we witnessed Wednesday night, even if I could change a few things. What I see ahead is something our little Black boys and girls can beam with pride when they walk through Independence Mall and witness the true history of America and their brave ancestors."

"And remember, they came here because we made demands. We had 700 people at the July demonstration. We've had about 1500 letters and presented 2000 names in a petition. When was the last time a community forced the federal government to go from denying to designing?"

In addition to ATAC's Coard, INHP had been meeting with representatives of local groups to explore the themes and design possibilities for the site. Others included AAMP's Harry Harrison; Stevie Wolf, representing the Ad Hoc Historicans; Karen Warrington, representing U.S. Rep. Robert Brady; Tanya Hall of the Multicultural Affairs Congress and Ed Lawler, representing the Independence Hall Association.

Vincent Ciulla Design, an interpretive firm from Brooklyn, N.Y., and Olin Partnership, developers of the master plan for Independence Mall, worked with the participants to develop the preliminary design for the site.


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