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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: April 8, 2003
Byline: Nia Ngina Meeks

Group fights for accurate slave portrait

Since last year, the Independence National Historical Park Service has been entangled in a flux of passions regarding accurate portrayal of slavery in America's first presidential home and the ongoing impact of the country's "peculiar institution."

While the park service contends that it wants to include all aspects of that history, some African-Americans charge that its efforts are not enough, so much so that after the last public outing to discuss the project, a new umbrella group of historians, activists, scholars and members of the city's multicultural tourism arm ­ Generations Unlimited ­ formed.

"There was a lot of displeasure with what was presented by the park service," said Tanya E. Hall, executive director of the Multicultural Affairs Congress and a Generations Unlimited spokeswoman. "There was a general sense that the community was being asked to accept a preliminary design concept that was created without their input."

The group joins the already established ATAC ­ Avenging the Ancestors Coalition ­ as another force with which the park service will have to reckon as it moves ahead with plans to expand the offerings on Independence Mall.

In 2001, the park service announced plans to construct a new Liberty Bell Center and move the site toward 6th and Market streets, on the site of what was Morris Mansion, home of George Washington. After a January 2002 academic article by Edward Lawler Jr. that documented that Washington's household included slaves, ATAC led a grassroots effort demanding an appropriate memorial also be included as part of the new complex. A letter writing campaign and a mass rally near the proposed site ensued.

"From my standpoint, generally, this whole issue about this commemorative project is part of the whole reparations movement,"said Michael Coard, an attorney and ATAC spokesman. "Reparations, meaning to make whole or repair. That's what America owes Black people."

The park service, for its part, says it is trying to comply with the wishes outlined by the activists.

"We, the National Park Service, want to tell a complete story of what happened there," said Phil Sheridan, spokesman for the Independence National Historical Park Service. "The complete story includes the presidents who occupied the house. In addition, we want to tell the story of those who were enslaved at that house, and of the free African-American community in the 18th century, and how the interaction of those who were enslaved may have helped speed the path to freedom to those who escaped."

Little has transpired since the park service's last public meeting in January. It was then that a draft of how the site could look was debuted, and left a sour taste in the mouths of some.

Since the beginning, there had been a lack of African-American scholars involved, Hall and others said. Likewise, inclusion of other institutional forces such as Black churches and schools were lacking.

And unlike other public monuments or memorials ­ the World Trade Center's reconstruction as an example ­ there was no call for various renderings, or overt inclusion of an African-American design team.

That left some with the feeling that the park service was offering a like-it-or-lump-it proposition, rather than a set of ideas that could still be adjusted.

ATAC is fielding further input from Black design firms on what the park service has offered to date.

Meanwhile, Generations Unlimited hosted some 185 people at a meeting at Benjamin Franklin High School late last month to further discuss what moves should come next.

Neither group is concerned with overlap.

"It's important that there be as many African organizations as possible attempting to address African issues," Coard said. "I applaud any group trying to get a commemorative project trying to honor our ancestors . . . wish there were even more."

At least eight enslaved Africans served in Washington's home during the time he was in Philadelphia. But the commemoration goes beyond just their lives, Hall said.

"This is about appropriately telling the story of slavery in America," she said. "It would give a great foundation for people to be able to understand how the affects of slavery have lived on."

The new Liberty Bell Center is set to open this fall.

Sheridan, of the park service, said that the Presidents' House portion of the project would cost $4.5 million, of which none is in hand. He also pointed out that in the past, other park features have been pushed along by private dollars from foundations.

Federal appropriations, if authorized, would come this fall at the earliest. But with war and a squishy economy, there's no guarantee that money for this expansion project will be released, despite the urging of local delegates such as Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.).

Money can't be the deterrent in making this commemoration a reality, Coard said.

"When you think of American tourist sites, you think of Mount Rushmore, the Statute of Liberty and the Liberty Bell," he said. "People who wouldn't know anything about it [slavery here], once they got here, they'd say, ‘Wow, I didn't know this.' This thing is so historic, so unique in its awesome implications that we would certainly be sure to make it happen."

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