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

Op-Ed: July 4th celebrations are flawed patriotism

Lordee, Lordee, Lordee

How tings dun changed!

Mo dan 2-hundid yers ago, de white peeples wooden let de niggras sell-lee-bait de 4th of Ju-Lie wit ‘em.

Now, cum dis Thursday, white peeples of Filty-delphia gonna give their big Ju-Lie 4th e-ward to Colin Powell who B de hi-est rank'n nig---culard man in de U.S. gubment as Mis-ta Sect-e-tarry of State.

Lordee, Lordee, Lordee

2-hundid-yers ago, sum dem white peeples in Filthy-delphia used 2 B thowing stones at de niggras and hit'in de niggras wit sticks, telling ‘em dey can't sell-lee-bait de 4th cause dey ain't real Merikans.

This ignorant attitude about Independence Day exhibited by sectors of Philly society angered Black Revolutionary War veterans like successful Philadelphia businessman James Forten, who was a third-generation freeman.

Forten, in an 1813 essay criticizing the exclusion of Blacks from his city's Independence Day celebrations, sarcastically remarked, "Is not wonderful, that the day set apart for the festival of liberty, should be abused by the advocates of freedom, in endeavoring to sully what they profess to adore?"

Ignorant exclusions caused many free Blacks in the northern U.S. to create alternative celebrations to Independence Day. Blacks in Boston, for example, started on July 14, 1808, staging an annual Abolition Day, featuring a host of activities celebrating the end of the legal importation of slaves in Great Britain and America.

This Black initiated counter-Independence Day celebration sparked denunciations by whites that included publication of prejudiced broadsides ridiculing the celebration with racist caricatures and mocking dialect. One 1820 broadside was entitled "Grand Bobalition of Slavery! By de Africum Shocietee."

When Powell receives the Liberty Medal on Thursday, the awards ceremony behind Independence Hall is located about one hundred yards from where ole George Washington kept his slaves when he lived in Philadelphia in the 1790s while serving as America's first President.

When Powell steps up to accept the prestigious honor, he will be standing about fifty yards from where the U.S. Congress threw out a petition on Friday, Jan. 3, 1800, sent by 74 Black Philadelphians.

This history-making petition, the first of its type sent to Congress by African Americans, eloquently requested the nation's legislature to end slavery and treat free Blacks FAIRLY.

Congress dismissed this petition asking that free Blacks be "admitted to partake of the liberties and unalienable rights" promised in the Constitution.

This cowardly dismissal by Congress condemned free Blacks to a status slightly better than slaves but significantly lower than their fellow white citizens, including newly arrived immigrants that fought to bar free Blacks from jobs.

James Forten, one of the signers of that petition, sent a letter to the only Congressman that supported the petition, Massachusetts Rep. George Thatcher.

Thatcher had castigated the "prejudice" of his colleagues for rejecting this petition that properly stated "sufferings" under U.S. laws that deserved congressional attention.

Forten's thank you letter praised Thatcher for being "humane" declaring that, "Though our faces are Black, yet we are men and are as anxious to enjoy the birth-right of the human race."

The unsung sacrifices of Black military veterans like James Forten laid the foundation that enabled Colin Powell to rise to become America's first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989.

Now, before breaking out that dandelion wine to toast racial progress in the United States, consider the fact that tomorrow afternoon (July 3, 2002) a group of folks will protest at the Liberty Bell.

A purpose of this demonstration by the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition* is to keep pressure on the National Park Service to fulfill its promise to properly recognize the historic fact that George Washington held slaves at the site of the new Bell pavilion. (* ATAC - pronounced "attack" - is a board based group energized by attorney Michael Coard.)

Initially the Park Service did not want to make any mention in its displays inside the new Bell pavilion that Washington held eight slaves at his Philadelphia White House.

Even worse, the misguided guardians of history at the Park Service ignored the heroic historic fact that two of Washington's slaves - a female named Oney Judge and a male named Hercules - literally grabbed liberty by escaping from the President's House to freedom.

While the Park Service has grudgingly convened a panel of historians to 'study' the issue of how to present the matter of Washington's slaves, the Park Service has yet to commit to correcting a glaring historical omission - the Blackout of the valiant efforts of free Black Philadelphians to obtain liberty for all.

The 'history' that the Park Service presents to hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting Independence Hall annually makes no mention of that 1799 petition.

Although Congress angrily debated this petition inside Independence Hall, Park Service tours make no mention of Congress short shifting this historically significant petition.

This dismissal is another nagging demonstration of the discriminatory mistreatment that has and continues to exclude Blacks from that hallowed pledge of ‘liberty and justice for all.'

Critics who claim ATAC is racially divisive beware.

ATAC's scheduled action tomorrow continues a legacy of struggle revolving around the flawed July 4th national celebration.

During a July 5, 1832 address inside the African Church in New Haven, Ct., Peter Osborne proclaimed that it "becomes every colored citizen in the U.S. to step forward boldly and gallantly defend his rights."

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

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