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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: September 12, 2003
Byline: Nia Ngina Meeks

Liberty Bell's moving party will include protests

The new Liberty Bell Center Pavilion and its nearby trappings seem to reflect the African-American experience.

The Independence Visitor Center across the street from the site sells items ranging from Phyllis Wheatley dolls to books such as the kid-oriented "Black Stars of Colonial Times and Revolutionary Times" by Jim Haskins.

And the pavilion will include stories of those who served the men establishing a new nation as well as people who fought against one of the oldest of America's ironies slavery amid those crying for freedom.

That's fine, according to Michael Coard and those who comprise the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition.

A start. But not enough.

Coard, along with other community activists plus a cluster of historians, remains undeterred in his conviction that the park service is not giving proper recognition of enslaved Africans who lived and perhaps died on the site where the pavilion sits.

They have stated their complaints before park, tourism and construction officials at a media briefing on the pending move, along with plans to protest a sure contrast to the pomp, food, and visitors.

"The omission of a marking for the slave quarters is a fundamental flaw," said Coard, an attorney and radio talk show host. "Our focus is not to destroy the history of George Washington but to include key issues."

The center's site is where the former executive mansion stood, where George Washington and those he enslaved lived and worked, according to recent historical research.

The $12.9 million project will be completed Oct. 9 when the bell travels all of 963 feet to its new home.

At Tuesday's briefing, Mayor John F. Street proclaimed that the bell bash would be great not only for the city, but also for the nation.

"Bell cakes" pancakes bursting with berries will highlight the free community breakfast that day. President George W. Bush and U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, among others, are invited. Others, such as Gov. Edward G. Rendell and U.S. National Park Service Director Fran P. Mainella, have confirmed.

The center's featured exhibit is 2,000-square feet, covering everything from pop representations of the bell to reproductions of pamphlets by abolitionists urging for the liberty tag.

"It's as inclusive as possible," said Karie Diethorn, the center's chief curator, whose specialty is representing America's working-class societies.

"The irony of a nation founded on freedom participating in the evil of slavery is the most obvious point we could make," Diethorn added.

But one not made strongly enough for the likes of some.

Since last year, Coard and others have argued for a commemoration of the Africans who lived, worked and died there. Last spring, a second group, Generations Unlimited, formed to join the fight. Both groups armed themselves with research by historians. Among the contributors is Charles L. Blockson, curator of a self-titled collection of African-American artifacts at Temple University.

At the briefing, Blockson spoke of Samuel Francis, a steward of three White Houses who has yet to be recognized. He said there were far more like him, a point often minimized or ignored, he said.

"How can we celebrate?" Blockson asked. "There was slavery up above and under the Liberty Bell. And we will keep agitating until the story is told."

Street acknowledged those passions and why some may feel less than moved to party at the bell's housewarming gala. Yet those same concerns have been overcome before, Street said, pointing to the National Constitution Center and hailing its outcome as a success.

"We're all concerned how this sensitive subject will be handled," he said. "But we can't be so bogged down and obsessed in the negative that we lose our focus and lose our way."

Coard is not so moved, though he praised the progress made so far, recalling that initial requests for recognition of the site as "hallowed ground" were spurned, but have since evolved to more conciliatory talks.

Something on the executive mansion may be in the park's future, if Congress approves the funding. If so, Coard said, ATAC will be there, clamoring for the full story to be told.

For now, they'll get a chance on Oct. 9. ATAC is among the groups invited to offer words.

"We'll be raising hell outside and raising key issues inside," Coard promised.

 

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