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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: July 8, 2003
Byline: Linn Washington Jr.

Op-ed: Echoes of ancestors overshadow the 4th

The noise generated by the orgy of Independence Day last week, inclusive of roaring fireworks and flawed focus on spiritually empty edifices like the new Constitution Center, did not quell the echoes of the ancestors.

The American born ancestors of today's Blacks have persistently demanded the same thing from this nation — fidelity to the stated promise of providing freedom, justice, and equality to all!

That stated promise is enshrined in the Preamble to the U.S .Constitution that claims to "establish justice" and securing "the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…"

However, for African-Americans in Philadelphia and beyond, the experience regarding enjoying the full measures of this hallowed ‘promise' has consistently been more nightmare than American Dream.

Less than a century after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, acclaimed author, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper assailed the devious exclusion of African-Americans from this promise during a speech in Philadelphia.

Harper criticized this constitutional contradiction during an April 1875 address at the Centennial Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

"Two things are wanting in American civilization — a keener and deeper sense of justice [and] a sense of humanity," said Harper, who lived on Bainbridge Street near 10th.

"Simple justice" Harper reminded, "is the right, not simply of the strong and powerful, but of the weakest and feeblest of all God's children…"

The demands last week of those African-Americans who demonstrated in and around Independence Mall echo demands of long forgotten ancestors like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Those major demonstrations by Blacks last week focused on securing justice for the long forgotten slaves owned by America's first president, George Washington.

These slaves toiled in Washington's Executive Mansion near the intersection of Market and 6th Streets, living in bondage literally in the shadow on Independence Hall where slave owning and slave supporting Founding Fathers ratified the freedom granting U.S. Constitution a few years earlier.

ATAC (Avenging The Ancestors Coalition) demonstrated last week at the site of the new Liberty Bell pavilion for the second straight year to press its demand that the National Park Service erect a permanent monument to honor those slaves held in Washington's Executive Mansion.

ATAC's Position Paper specifically states that "justice" is the driving force behind the demands of this broad-based coalition.

"ATAC wants the commemorative project and other permanent memorializing acknowledgments because justice demands that," states the Position Paper.

"ATAC also wants that project and other acknowledgements because they are an essential part of the history of the Liberty Bell, which, by the way, did not receive its worldwide acclaim until the anti-slavery forces in the 1830s adopted it as their symbol."

ATAC spokesman, attorney Michael Coard, says various actions over the past year have succeeded in pushing the National Park Service from a posture of "denying to designing."

Coard said the Park Service initially dismissed the significance of Washington holding slaves but moved from denial to designing a monument for outside of the new Liberty Bell pavilion and redesigning exhibits inside the pavilion to incorporate the contributions of African-Americans in U.S. history.

The fact that Black folks have to fight for the inclusion of their ancestors in Independence Park commemorations without the full and vocal support of a City government headed by a Black man is scandalous.

"We are hoping to get something stronger from the mayor's office," Coard said. "The mayor initially said this issue was an important issue but he has said nothing since then."

A separate demonstration last week passed by the new Constitution Center, renewing criticism of the exclusion of Black workers and contractors on that multi-million dollar project.

Employment racism at the Constitution Center site sparked protests last fall.

This contemporary employment racism again evidences the failure to learn lessons advanced by the ancestors.

In August 1869, Black labor union leader Isaac Myers, warned of the corrosive impact of employment racism during his address to the national convention of the National Labor Union held in Philadelphia.

"American citizenship with the Blackman is a complete failure if he is proscribed from the workshops of this country…If citizenship means anything at all, it means the freedom of labor," stressed Myers, a Black labor leader in Baltimore whose Black union bought a shipyard to ensure work for Blacks.

Employment racism, economic apartheid, and other elements of the continued exclusion of African-Americans from their full enjoyment of those promises stated in the Constitution show that the leaders of this nation have failed to grasp the significance of an observation made by Rev. Jonathan C. Gibbs in 1863.

"Your destiny as white men and ours as Black men are one and the same ... if you rise, we will rise…if you fall, we will fall, but you will have the worst of it," stated Rev. Gibbs, pastor of the Colored Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, during a January 1863 sermon.

The fact that employment racism and economic apartheid persist in Philadelphia is an insult to our ancestors and their descendents — us.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper provided wisdom in 1875 when she noted:

"The most important question before us colored people is not simply what the Democratic party may do against us or the Republican party do for us; but what are we going to do for ourselves?"


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