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Source: The Philadelphia Tribune
Date: August 20, 2002
Byline: Linn Washington Jr.

Op-Ed: "Biography" enriches history of Hall

Fiery Black activist Frederick Douglass came to the revered Philadelphia landmark in August 1844 to denounce slavery.

Famed U.S. President John Kennedy came to this landmark on July 4, 1962 to castigate communism.

The life of this landmark — Independence Hall — extends far beyond the signing of America's Declaration of Independence, the immortal document referenced by both Douglass and Kennedy during their speeches at the building.

Forgotten stories about this famous edifice on Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth that is so pivotal to the history of America and Philadelphia fill the pages of a new book, "Independence Hall: In American Memory" (University of Pennsylvania Press 2002).

The near-single focus of Independence Hall being the site for the 1776 signing of the Declaration and the 1787 ratification of the U.S. Constitution all but obliterate the volumes of other fascinating stories revolving around this historic structure.

"From the American Revolution to the turn of the millennium, Independence Hall has been a place for celebrating the nation's triumphs and mourning its tragedies," writes author Dr. Charlene Mires, who describes her new book as a "biography of a building."

This book by Mires, a professor of American history at Villanova University, recounts the stunning array of activities held in and around Independence Hall.

These activities range from the origins of Independence Hall as the structure housing the seat of Pennsylvania state government in the early 1700s to a gathering point for pro-labor union and anti-immigration activities in the early 1800s and rallies favoring voting rights for women nearly a century later to hosting a special session of the U.S. Congress in 1987.

Independence Hall was Philadelphia's official place for hosting visiting national and international dignitaries decades after hosting the work of America's Founding Fathers.

During the 19th century, for example, Philadelphia's municipal dog pound was located in the basement of Independence Hall while the city's government offices resided upstairs, Mires says. "Independence Hall is not just a place of the nation — it is a place of the city."

Some of the most fascinating and forgotten stories in Mires' book relate to overlooked aspects of the current controversy surrounding the Liberty Bell, located across Chestnut Street from Independence Hall.

The Liberty Bell controversy centers on exposing the story of slavery related to the fact that America's first president, George Washington, literally kept slaves on the site where the new Bell pavilion is being built.

Local historians and community activists have succeeded in getting officials at Independence National Historical Park to revise their planned exhibits for the new Liberty Bell center to include the issue of bondage within the story of freedom symbolized by the Bell.

Yet, generally forgotten by history is the fact that not all Blacks living in early America were slaves. Philadelphia had the nation's largest population of free Blacks.

These Free Africans, as they described themselves, waged constant struggles to obtain both the full measure of rights pledged in the Constitution for freedmen like themselves and the liberty proclaimed in the Declaration for their brethren in bondage.

Telling many of the forgotten stories about the valiant struggles for freedom waged by African-Americans at and around Independence Hall is one of the most enduring contributions of this book by Charlene Mires.

Independence Hall "stood adjacent to one of the early nation's fastest growing communities of people of African descent," Mires writes. "African-Americans struggled to define and defend the rights of American citizenship — African Americans engaged in their own acts of independence, constitution-writing and representation."

The forgotten stories about Blacks contained in Mires' book provide compelling documentation that can help counter many of the myths animating the matrix of racial prejudice today.

The fact that these forgotten stories are not included in scholastic history textbooks or regularly integrated into television programming fans the societal ignorance that accepts excluding Blacks from America's mainstream.

Countering the myth of Black passivity are accounts in Mires' book of free Black Philadelphians petitioning Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature, confronting schemes to forcibly expel free Blacks back to Africa and organizing national conventions for Blacks in Philadelphia.

Countering the myth that Blacks did little for themselves are accounts of free Black Philadelphians building their own churches, creating charitable organizations and founding institutions for educational enlightenment.

Another forgotten fact about Independence Hall is its role in the mid-1800s enforcement of the federal Fugitive Slave Law. Judges and magistrates used courtrooms inside the building noted as the beacon of American freedom to enslave American citizens.

"Fugitive slave hearings tend to be lost in Philadelphia history," Mires says.

Mires does not feel that some grand conspiracy lurks behind the loss of some many forgotten facts about Independence Hall.

"I don't think there is any intentional cover-up of history. I think what we see being done at Independence Hall is what those with means and control of the building thought was important about the building. But there is so much more beyond the emphasis on 1776 and 1787," Mires said during a recent interview.

Mires began working on her "biography" of Independence Hall in 1993.

She hopes her book will help people recognize Independence Hall as a more powerful place.

"Yes, it is the home of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution," Mires said, "But it is also a place where Americans worked out the essence of what the country is."


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

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