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Source: The Philadelphia Tribune
Date: October 18, 2002
Byline: Linn Washington, Jr.

Liberty Bell has updated history

Responding to public pressure, officials at the Independence National historical park in Center City have drastically increased images and details involving African-Americans in the exhibits scheduled for installation at the new liberty Bell Center.

The new exhibit contains fascinating and oft-forgotten facets of the contributions of Blacks to American history related to the Liberty Bell and what that international symbol stands for.

The revised exhibit arises from a controversy that erupted earlier this year regarding the actual site of the new Center, now under construction near Sixth Street between Market and Chestnut streets.

This spring, historians and community activists raised concerns over the fact that the entrance to the new Liberty Bell Center is situated on the site where America's first President, George Washington, housed his slaves when he lived in Philadelphia.

Many have long voiced concerns that the exhibits inside the current Liberty Bell Pavilion make no mention of the fact that the Bell received its name from the anti-slavery movement during the early 1800s.

Park officials agreed to reconsider their planned exhibits for the new Liberty Bell Center and appointed a panel of distinguished historians that included Philadelphia's renowned Black Historian Charles Blockson, to improve the exhibits along the theme of liberty and not achieved.

The reworked exhibit now includes accounts, artifacts, graphics and photographs exposing the involvement of Blacks over a two-century span from Free Black Philadelphians at the dawn of the United States to 1993 Liberty Bell visit by anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela.

"The Park Service heard the challenge and comments and came up with an exhibit that tells the whole story of liberty," said Dennis Reidenbach, acting superintendent of Independence National Historical Park. "I think we had a very good exhibit for the new Center initially. Now I think it is outstanding. We are now challenging the visitors a lot more."

The new exhibit centers on tow themes: the Liberty Bell being a sacred American relic and the idea that the liberty and freedom that America supposedly stands for have not been achieved, particularly by racial minorities.

The new exhibit consists of three sections: the origins of the Bell, the Bell as an American symbol and the Bell as an international icon.

An unprecedented aspect of the new exhibit is that it helps closes a shameful gap in the presentation of American history by providing images and details regarding items like the contributions of Free blacks to the Underground Railroad and the deprivations of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, when Blacks were virtually re-enslaved.

The new exhibit also contains information about the slaves George Washington held in Philadelphia. Additionally, the exhibit references little-known Philadelphia history like Independence Hall being the site of court hearings for fugitive slave cases in the 1850s.

Reidenbach concedes that the revisions to the exhibit won't satisfy everyone. "We're looking for maximum impact, not maximum story," he said.

Historian Charles Blockson says the story of Black contributions is still not complete, but the new exhibit is a significant improvement.

 

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