For many African-Americans, the ancient African city of Timbuktu is both a source of ancestral pride and powerful proof countering claims that Blacks lack history worthy of respect. For Black history “haters” dismissive of Africa’s past, the grandeurs of Timbuktu are fables with no basis in fact, hyped by Blacks desperate to have a legitimate pre-slavery legacy.
For Halle Ousmane, Timbuktu is home.
Ousmane is the mayor of Timbuktu, the city renowned from the 11th through 16th centuries as a center for commerce and scholarship, with libraries and universities.
Timbuktu, a U.N.-designated “World Heritage” site, is in the West African nation of Mali.
While Ousmane is pleased with his city’s storied past, his present focus involves perplexing issues like poverty, restlessness among unemployed youths and desertification.
Last December, he joined thousands of local African leaders attending the African Summit of Local Governments held in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Last Friday, during a public meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, far-off Timbuktu became ammunition in the fight over what information to include in exhibits about slavery planned for the President’s House project now under construction in downtown Philadelphia outside the Liberty Bell Pavilion.
Respected local historian Edward Robinson told those attending that meeting that references to Timbuktu were essential for accurately providing salient context for the story of enslaved Blacks held by America’s first president, George Washington, while Washington lived in that Center City residence.
The 92-year-old Robinson said African Americans “did not come from savagery, degradation and illiteracy. This is a chance to tell the truth. ... This is a chance to show the world that white people can tell our story correctly.”
Robinson referenced one remarkable find in Timbuktu a few years ago of even more ancient manuscripts citing that as continuing proof of that city’s importance.
“We are descendants of world-class literacy and science. That must be incorporated in the exhibits,” Robinson requested, calling the nine slaves held by President Washington when he lived in Philadelphia “POWs” (Prisoners of War).
Commemorating those nine slaves is a critical focus of that project at Sixth and Market streets, with that commemoration being a “first” for Philadelphia and America.
Others at that meeting to provide a progress report on the project had erupted in rancorous, often rude protestations blasting what they perceived as multiple ills at the project, including falsely depicting the horrors of slavery and excluding Blacks from contracting and employment on the project.
“Our tax dollars are telling lies. The ancestors are crying,” angrily said activist Sacaree Rhodes, who has alternately agitated for and protested against this project.
Emanuel Kelly, head of Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners and the person (an African American) managing the construction site, defended minority inclusion on the project, saying Blacks comprise 70 percent of those conducting this project’s design and interpretative aspects and minority firms comprise 67 percent of the contractors at the site (Blacks received eight of the 13 contracts).
Like Kelly, Rosalyn McPherson, manager of the project for the city and Independence National Historical Park, tried unsuccessfully to calm protestors.
“We are still working to improve the tone (of the planned exhibits) to get it right,” said McPherson (an African-American). “We want balance. There are people who are upset that most of the site is devoted to the story of slavery.”
Internationally revered historian and collector Charles Blockson complained that exhibit depictions at the project minimize the roles of Sam Fraunces, the free Black restaurant owner whom Washington personally invited to manage food service at his Philly residence and the man who owned the house rented to Washington, wealthy slave-trader Robert Morris.
“Why are we honoring that house of bondage? Do Jews rebuild concentration camps?” Blockson asked during an interview before the meeting.
During the meeting, Blockson, curator emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University said, “We need a memorial to all enslaved Africans, not just the nine. Why isn’t the story of resistance told? A Black woman burned down her master’s house two blocks from this site. Why is her story not told?”
Blockson and Robinson raise interesting points.
Kelly’s presentation indicated that one exhibit will include information about the 1799 petition that free Blacks living in Philadelphia sent to the U.S. Congress — the first from Blacks protesting slavery.
That petition signed by 74 Blacks and authored by local Black leader the Rev. Absalom Jones requested the elimination of slavery plus protection for free Blacks from Fugitive Slave Act abuses that included kidnapping “Freedmen” into slavery.
Adding a sentence to the exhibit that connects the 1799 petition with the African literary traditions evident in Timbuktu — as Robinson suggests — could make significant strides in countering stereotypes within the minds of millions who visit the Liberty Bell annually.
According to widely held stereotypes, slave-era Blacks couldn’t write and they happily accepted their freedom-crushing circumstance — whether enslaved or free.
That “can’t read” stereotype was the sentiment strenuously expressed by a South Carolina congressman when opposing that December 1799 petition during a January 1800 Congressional debate. Congress overwhelmingly rejected that petition.
Blockson is right about short-shrifting the significant story of resistance to racism in Philadelphia, spanning Colonial to contemporary times.
Local Blacks need to raise the funding for creating a world-class exhibit at Philly’s Afro-American Museum honoring this freedom-securing resistance.
Clay Armbrister, Mayor Nutter’s chief of staff, assured protestors their concerns were not being ignored.
Linn Washington Jr. is an award-winning writer who teaches journalism at Temple University.