Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: October 10, 2003
Byline: Nia Ngina Meeks

Liberty Bell's move met with joy, protest

Philadelphia launched its latest attraction yesterday with the opening of the Liberty Bell Center, a day that started with a processional led by the 251-year-old bell and continued with a competing protest all along Fifth and Sixth streets on Market Street.

Indifference, pride, disappointment and outrage were evident among the Blacks who showed and those who stayed from the eight hour-affair that christened the new center.

At 7:04 a.m., the move toward its new site began, the bell propped on a special cart to minimize further damage to the already cracked and fragile American icon.

Every few feet along its 963-foot journey, actors proclaimed the virtues of freedom and the desire for equality, from the colonial era through the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Archie Bunch, a computer technician who works in Center City, said it was worth getting to work late on this day so he could bear witness and pay homage during "Liberty on the Move."

"I'm here to let them see a Black face over here," said Bunch, a Cobbs Creek resident. "It's not just their country. It's about my father, my grandfather, and his grandfather, who fought in the Civil War. We need to take in the full process."

That hasn't been par for the course, according to park officials. African-American tourists don't come to the park in significant numbers, said Frances Delmar, a supervising park ranger for Independence National Historical Park.

Of those gathered yesterday, the highest concentration of Blacks either wore park uniforms or 19th-century costumes for the segment featuring Frederick A. Morsell as Frederick Douglass.

Another fair sprinkling gathered for the community breakfast sponsored by the Independence Mall Business and Residents Coalition. Some glanced at the proceedings, but fewer left the food line or their table to join.

Morsell managed to capture the imaginations of those who gathered, though the arrival of Gov. Ed Rendell distracted some onlookers from his oration.

Even for this segment, Christa Lewis from Overbrook was among the few Blacks in the crowd.

"Black people don't realize how much this city's past brings us here today," Lewis said. "It's surprising that people who live here don't take advantage of our historical sites."

A whole other contingent remains upset about this particular site, and showed up en masse to voice their concerns.

For the past year and a half, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a loose-knit contingent of historians and community activists, has protested aspects of the center.

Documentation shows the Market Street location once was home and burial grounds [FAQ re burial grounds -webmaster] for Africans enslaved by then-President George Washington, making the site "hollowed ground," ATAC contends.

As a choir sang "America the Beautiful" before the new center, across the street, some 300 people clustered to pour libations in honor of their ancestors and to pledge to continue fighting for what they see as an appropriate acknowledgement of the eight Africans and others like them.

Michael Coard, a spokesman for ATAC, read a letter of support from Mayor John F. Street that said a plaque of some sort would be installed on land owned by the city, along with a pledge of money to help pay for that.

"We vow never to forget the horror and holocaust that they went through," activist and radio personality Jeffrey Hart told the assembly.

ATAC members remain dissatisfied that there is no marker about the slavery that occurred amid purveyors of freedom. It's the ultimate irony of the Liberty Bell attraction, park service officials readily acknowledge.

An estimated 1 million people visit the Liberty Bell annually, and those numbers are expected to spike, at least in part, with the inclusion of this latest feature to the Mall.

The new pavilion doubles as a museum with a lengthwise exhibit outlining the bell's history.

What's included ranges from miniature replica bells visitors can ring to panels detailing finer points such as the commission, the origins of its name and its status as an enduring symbol of freedom worldwide. Points about slavery, the abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights Movement are included.

The bell itself will sit in the rear of the complex, facing a window composed of glass panels, looking out at Independence Hall, another former home.

Yet the $12.9 million facility is not without other flaws.

Captions, for example, are missing from key photographs, an oversight that would be corrected in the coming days, park officials said.

How, when and where remains the question in adding a permanent memorial speaking specifically to those who had been enslaved at the site, said park spokesman Phil Sheridan.

The park service has asked for another $4.5 million to do that in the context of highlighting the President's House, a structure long gone. Legislation prevents the service from reconstructing the building, Sheridan said.

 

Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more