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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: June 12, 2006
Byline: Kenny Waters

Memorial hearing offers lessons

This past week, the committee charged with the "President's House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation" memorial took its first step in the development of erecting a slave memorial.

For the first time since the city of Philadelphia and Independence National Historic Park (INHP) revealed the semifinalists who will be responsible for constructing the memorial — they hosted their first public forum at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

This event, which was designed to educate and keep the public informed on the progress of the commemoration, feature two acclaimed historians as guest speakers — Howard Dodson and Fath Davis Ruffins.

Both individuals gave presentations on the theme of "Commemorative Sites: the Opportunities for Teachable Moments."

For Ruffins, who presented her message last, she wanted to get across that there are multiple ways of looking at the past, and that they all have some validity.

"A commemorative site," she told The Tribune after the forum, "needs to have an esthetic and spiritual diminishing that might be different in a different kind of site."

In addition to Ruffins' comment, during her oration she spoke heavily about how freedom and slavery intertwine with one another.

"What I mean by that, is that it's a historical fact that the United States, and the government we have today, emerged out of a slaveholding nation," she said. "Historians call that an unfinished revolution."

To understand what makes Ruffins' diagnosis credible is her experiences and background in working with African-American history.

Recognized as an award-winning historian, exhibit developer and author of 10 books — exclusively geared around describing the obstacles African Americans had to endure throughout the years, she is a full-time curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

According to Attorney Michael Coard, along with his grassroots group, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), he is happy with the progressive steps in bringing the memorial to the city, but also understands that more work needs to be done.

In a document specifically given to The Tribune, it notes that ATAC's current mission is to demand Black architects, Black designers, Black construction firms, Black historians and other Black workers to be selected to play a "substantial, significant, and prominent" role in the creation of this memorial project.

"Because our enslaved ancestors were forced into unpaid labor in the past," said Coard, "their descendants must be selected for paid labor in the present."

During the question and answer segment of the forum, Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, acknowledge that what ATAC was asking for was kind of difficult.

But in summary, he noted that he would do whatever he could to see that an African-American-owned contractor played a part in the commemorations development. "I'm going to do my best," he said.

 

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