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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: May 7, 2002
Byline: Linn Washington Jr.

Park service compromises Black rights

One of the most despicable political acts in American history took place in Center City Philadelphia on July 12, 1787 when delegates to the Constitutional Convention accepted the infamous "Three-Fifths Compromise."

This 'Compromise' pushed by southern slave owners established a formula for determining federal taxation and representation in Congress that counted five slaves as the equivalent of three whites.

"According to the compromise, twenty thousand owners of fifty thousand slaves had a political representation equal to fifty thousand free persons," one history text noted.

This 'Compromise' was one of three provisions sanctioning slavery in the Constitution created for the so-called Land of the Free.

The second provision permitted the legal importation of slaves into the U.S. until 1808. The third provision put the full power of the federal government behind returning ‘fugitive slaves' to their owners.

The pledge of securing "the blessings of liberty" — for — "We, the People" contained in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution did not apply to slaves and their Free Black brethren.

Three months before adoption of that despicable 3/5th's Compromise, the ruthless discrimination faced by Free Blacks in the misnamed City of Brotherly Love — from employment to church pews — precipitated the founding of the Free African Society on April 12, 1787.

Known as America's first Black mutual aid organization, this religious and political structure confronted daily indignities, including indignities practiced by Constitutional conventioneers.

Two hundred and fifteen years after approval of that dastardly Compromise, the issue of slavery is once again sparking controversy in Center City — this time at the construction site for the new Liberty Bell pavilion located less than a block from the location of the Constitutional Convention.

The planned entrance to the new Liberty Bell pavilion is located on top of the site where George Washington housed his ‘stable' slaves when he lived in Philadelphia during the 1790s while serving as President of the United States.

Washington lived in a mansion on Market Street and the stable behind this mansion housed those slaves.

For months National Park Service officials have rejected requests to formally recognize the existence of Washington's slaves and the liberty-sapping contradictions of slavery in the descriptive panels NPS plans for the interior of the new Liberty Bell pavilion.

NPS officials' recalcitrant rejections of requests that they fulfill their legal duty to present factually accurate history at the Liberty Bell site reflects the mindset of those Constitutional conventioneers who refused to terminate slavery.

Spirited public criticism prompted by NPS recalcitrance forced NPS officials to convene a meeting next week with a small group of historians to discuss reviewing its stance on minimizing the depiction of slavery within the new Liberty Bell pavilion.

However, given that NPS record of recalcitrance on the Liberty Bell/slavery issue coupled with its general dereliction in fully presenting the history of Blacks (free & slave) in and around Independence National Park, a question looms regarding the real intentions of NPS.

Is another despicable political compromise brewing in Center City Philadelphia, once again subordinating the interests of Blacks to the economic and emotional imperatives of white society?

This question is legitimate given the dynamics of institutional defensiveness and institutional arrogance.

Since the Liberty Bell/slavery controversy erupted in public over a month ago, NPS officials have tried to mitigate criticism of their stance with some ridiculous responses.

NPS officials have implied that historians are giving undue prominence to the presence of Washington's slaves since the Pres also had indentured servants and wage earners in his household.

This repugnant implication is comparable to contending that the Jewish Holocaust receives undue prominence because Hitler also exterminated Gypsies, homosexuals, and racial minorities.

NPS officials have also contended that the best place to tell the story of Washington's slaves is at a NPS facility in Germantown where Washington occasionally stayed, the Deshler-Morris House.

The Deshler-Morris House receives less than 2,000 visitors a year, far fewer than the 1.2-million that visit the Liberty Bell.

NPS relegating the Washington slave story to the Deshler-Morris house robs the million-plus Liberty Bell visitors of valuable information that can begin reversing the ravages of the slavery-spawned racism soiling contemporary American society.

NPS willingness to "display a generic exhibition about slavery…is culturally insulting and historically deficient," states a letter to NPS officials drafted by Philadelphia lawyer and WHAT radio host, Michael Coard.

"Historians agree that there must be a complete picture of America's birth and the essential role that slavery played in it. More than a mere panel is needed to complete that picture," continues the letter sent to NPS officials by hundreds of Coard's listeners.

Coard's letter writing campaign contrasts sharply to the silence on this important issue from Philadelphia's African-American Museum, the facility that proclaims itself "dedicated" to preserving Black culture in Philadelphia.

Not only has the Museum not taken a "position" on the controversy, a spokeswoman for the Museum's PR firm said she is not sure Museum officials "believe it is an issue."

Do NPS officials fall into that category of people discussed in a 1797 petition to the U.S. Congress written by the Rev. Absalom Jones, co-founder of Philadelphia's Free African Society?

Rev. Jones decried "those in eminent stations" that felt Blacks were not entitled "to that public justice and protection which is the great object of Government."

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

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