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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: April 2, 2002
Byline: Linn Washington Jr.

Park Service burying a shameful fact

Time is always ripe to do right, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared during the last Sunday sermon he delivered days before his murder in April 1968.

King made this declaration while dissecting what he described as America's debilitating Myth of Time — "the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice."

Dr. King's discussion of "time" during that March 31, 1968 sermon examined a sordid tradition in the United States.

This historic tradition involves powers-that-be using specious rationales of either time or place not being "right" to sidestep addressing issues raised regarding the rights of Blacks and/or doing right by Blacks.

Today, in downtown Philadelphia, the U.S. Park Service is using a time-&-place-not-being-right rationale to officially sidestep a poignant yet problematic issue involving racism embedded within Independence National Park, the facility featuring the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

The U.S. Park Service is presently building a new $9-million pavilion for the Liberty Bell near Sixth and Chestnut streets on Independence Mall.

The planned entrance for this new pavilion is right on top of the site where George Washington housed some of his slaves when he lived in Philadelphia in the 1790s while serving as the first president of the United States.

Washington brought some ‘house slaves' and ‘stable slaves' from his Virginia plantation to his Philadelphia mansion — despite slavery being illegal in Pennsylvania at the time.

U.S. Park Service officials are rejecting historians' requests to conduct a formal archaeological excavation at the new pavilion site — leading to charges that the Park Service is literally conducting a ‘cover-up!'

Additionally, Park Service officials are arrogantly contending that the story of Washington's slaves is separate from that of the Liberty Bell and that this slave story is best told in another place — NOT at the pavilion built atop the slave quarters.

Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan contends the mission on the mall is "about the Liberty Bell" and not Washington's slaves or his presidential mansion, according to published reports.

This "not-the-right-time/right-place" posture of U.S. Park Service officials is fraught with irony beyond the fact the agency charged with preserving and interpreting American history is actively engaging in actions that ignore and annihilate a significant aspect of American history.

One irony is that the popularization of the Liberty Bell as a distinctive symbol of freedom came from 19th-century anti-slavery activists and not from patriots of the Revolution.

Curiously, while Park Service rangers tell Liberty Bell visitors about anti-slavery activists embracing this icon, Park Service officials resist prominently incorporating the facet of slavery at the site into the story they will tell inside the new Bell pavilion.

An account of the Liberty Bell's anti-slavery ancestry is contained in the 2001 book "African-Americans In Pennsylvania: Above Ground And Underground — An Illustrated Guide" by respected Philadelphia-based historian Charles L. Blockson.

Blockson draws a stinging connection between the force driving the current "can't-wait" construction schedule at the pavilion and the force behind slavery in criticizing the Park Service's posture on burying slave history under the new Bell building.

"Slavery was about money and today tourism is about money. The Liberty Bell site is for tourism to attract money," Blockson charged during an interview last week.

"This is about money, tourism and land over people," said Blockson, the driving force behind the placement of official state markers commemorating historic contributions of Blacks on the edges of Independence Park, around Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.

"Are they going to tell the truth to tourists? There should be no more lies," Blockson declared. "Maybe that crack in the Bell is for hypocrisy!"

Edward Lawler Jr. is the local scholar whose painstaking research provided a written reconstruction of Washington's presidential mansion on Market Street and the quarters for the "stable slaves" at the mansion's rear.

"This is a major site and it is amazing that the Park Service is going to do a minimal treatment," Lawler said during an interview last week.

"It is my impression that the Park Service does not want to interpret the slave story into the new pavilion, feeling that maybe it should be someplace else. But that is where it belongs," Lawler noted.

The short shrift U.S. Park Service officials currently give to the George Washington slave quarters site is comparable to attitudes pervading the U.S. Congress in the late 1790s when that body met in Independence Hall — located across Chestnut Street from Washington's slave quarters.

Congress, for example, in January 1800 indignantly rejected the first petition sent by African-Americans to that body asking for the abolition of slavery by an 85-1 vote. Those petitioners were 74 Black Philadelphians.

Congress, in 1797, rejected a petition asking for protection from four Blacks then living in Philadelphia because white racists drove them from their homes in North Carolina during legally sanctioned rampages to rid that state of freedmen.

Congressmen rejected those petitions by citing "not-the-right-time/right-place" rationales, thus refusing to protect the rights of free Blacks.

Both petitions, authored by Black Philadelphia leader Absalom Jones, begged Congress to extend "justice" to free Blacks as promised all citizens in the US Constitution.

The duplicity of early US leaders refusing to end slavery on the claim that the Constitution required them to "protect property" while failing to protect the property rights of free Blacks parallels contemporary duplicity of extolling democracy while sidestepping liberty robbing historic racism.

The mistreatment of those petitions from free Blacks comprises stirring stories paralleling the inherent mistreatment of slaves held in Philadelphia by George Washington and many Congressmen — lawmakers then defiantly breaking Pennsylvania's anti-slavery laws

U.S. Park Service officials defiantly sidestep these stories, shirking their legal duty to faithfully present the full history of the multiple struggles for liberty at the Bell site.


Linn Washington Jr. is an award-winning writer who teaches journalism at Temple University.
 

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