Maybe yesterday’s dedication of the President’s House at 6th and Market Streets ends a decade-long debate. Then again, maybe not. Judging from initial reactions, it'll propel itself into a new phase. Whatever happens, we're sure that that both sites, the one at 6th and Market and its digital harbinger, the President's House site on the web, will see a humongous amount of traffic.
Since the Independence Hall Association's website went up nearly a decade ago, it’s been at the center of the story, advancing it, advocating for something more than a wayside marker set in a patch of English ivy outside the women’s rest room.
How did a website help get history rewritten? Doug Heller, the IHA webmaster, claims he designed the site for advocacy, not really “for public consumption.” If anything was going to change, he said, the “heavy lifting would have to be done by traditional media.” Heller saw his job as “making sure they have the information they need.”
But information, no matter how right, needs something else to become effective. Unless it grabs you by your lapels, looks you square in the eye and shakes you, it's only so many words, so much data. In Ed Lawler, Heller found a partner who’d supply a story with irony so potent, so revealing, that together, and with many allies gathered along the way, they would bring Independence National Historical Park to its knees, interpretively speaking.
Heller and Lawler joined forces in 2001, taking as a challenge the Park Superintendent’s warning that interpreting the President's House, the home of the executive branch of the federal government, would “create a design dissonance...potentially causing confusion for visitors.”
With Lawler’s research freshly published in January 2002, the story began to develop a life of its own. In a RadioTimes interview on March 13, Gary Nash, a New-Age patriarch of American History (if ever there was one) hijacked his own book tour by advocating for a wake up call. “Millions of visitors are going to go into the Liberty Bell not knowing they are walking over the site of Washington's executive mansion, indeed walking over the slave quarters he built at the rear of the house.... We have here a conjunction of liberty and slavery — on the same site!"
Less than two weeks later the Sunday Inquirer blazed a headline across the top of page one: “Echoes of slavery at Liberty Bell site. Historians say George Washington kept slaves there. They've asked to have the site studied, but the Park Service says no.” What started out as an earnest group of ad hoc historians (I served as an early member of this group) evolved into a community-wide effort to reveal the complexity and contradiction of America at the place of its founding. The following July 3rd, a protest at the site led by Charles Blockson and Michael Coard and their new group Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) drove the story home. And from home, more than 1,100 citizens signed the online petition in support of telling the whole truth at 6th and Market.
Heller's site had truth and traction. In those first years, “traditional media” published no less than 72 articles, editorials, features and letters building an ever-wider appetite for a story whose internal contradiction turned out to be its greatest asset. Heller posted every one and still does. It’s up to 531 at last count.
Every step of the way, Heller approached leveraging information like the piecing together of a giant puzzle. His site includes scores of images, plans, chronologies, radio interviews, videos, memos, laws, mandates and testimonies. (Heller’s puzzlemastery comes in handy here.) This story, like any other, he explains, “has its own internal gravity...the content will tell you how it wants to be organized and you have to listen.”
So what’s the content telling Heller now? With site-wide activity topping three million monthly page views, we’re sure to find out soon.