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Source: The Sentinel
Date: January 19, 2003
Byline: Carol Talley

Let's tell the whole story

The National Park Service just wants to build a new Liberty Bell Center.

Bully for the agency. I'm all for making historical places better — even by spending $4.5 million in taxpayer money.

Better, however, turned to bitter as citizens learned that NPS would virtually ignore the history of the site where President George Washington and his slaves and President John Adams and freed blacks once lived.

Side note: The Robert Morris House was the official presidential residence on Market and Sixth streets when Philly was the nation's capital for a decade between 1790 and 1800.

Ah, the tales that could be told — if somebody cared enough to tell them.

But Park Service officials either dismissed the significance of the history or weren't swift enough to recognize a potential bombshell.

So on to the bare bones of the dispute, which is the manipulation of history.

The NPS plan was to build a new bell center on the same land the Robert Morris House once occupied. A plaque or two would be erected to explain what once had been there.

Opponents gathered quickly. "Tell it as it was," they said.

Well, the way it was, according to the website, ushistory.org, and a couple of other sites, is that President George and wife Martha rolled into Philly from the Big Apple with seven black slaves.

Sketchy histories of six slaves are posted. Most came to Washington through his wife, who was a widow with children when they married.

However, the story of Oney (Ona) Judge Stainer is detailed since she was interviewed later in life.

Oney was the daughter of a white indentured servant and a black slave. As a teen-ager, she was Martha Washington's body servant.

She met many free black people when Martha visited shops and other homes during the Philly years. Through them, she escaped the president's house one night while the Washingtons ate dinner, was hidden and then sailed to New Hampshire.

Martha wanted a reward notice posted. However, George realized this would be an unpopular move because Philadelphians didn't like slavery.

Finally, a friend of Nellie Custis, Martha's granddaughter, recognized Oney in Portsmouth and told the Washingtons where she was.

George asked Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth's harbormaster, to send his wife's property back.

Oney said she'd go back if she were freed when the Washingtons died. The president refused to reward "unfaithfulness." Whipple, fearing an uproar, never delivered Oney.

Washington's nephew, Burnwell Bassett Jr., tried again two years later. Oney, a wife and mother by then, went into hiding. She never was freed, much less forgiven for stealing herself.

So now two-hundred-plus years later, this is fodder for protests since it ties in rather well with the Liberty Bell, which was named in 1837 when it was adopted as the symbol of the abolition cause.

Putting the Liberty Bell near the site of the Morris House and slave quarters is a pretty compelling reason to do more than post two plaques.

The bell and house histories show how slavery was a hot button in every step taken in the founding and forging of our country. While the colonists fought for independence, landholders among them listed slaves on their ledgers and argued the economic necessity of the system.

Some slave trade money may have even helped to finance the war.

Financier Robert Morris, who built the house that became the president's home, is credited with having done the most to fund the Revolutionary War. And the history website mentions surviving records showing Willing, Morris & Co. imported roughly 15 percent of the Africans who arrived in the Philadelphia Port during the 1700s.

See how hard it is to keep anything simple?

One discovery just leads to another.

The Park Service just didn't want to put them together.

Side note: A nationwide petition can be found on ushistory.org calling on the NPS to make a footprint of the Robert Morris House near the Liberty Bell Center and tell about slavery and free blacks.

So after a year, NPS revealed a revised preliminary plan this past week. I'll lay odds agency officials thought this one would be a winner.

But a Philadelphia Inquirer story reports the meeting at the African American Museum of Philadelphia was boisterous. Some people still are not pleased.

The preliminary new design now features a footprint of the house and discussion of slavery. But the black audience also wants the role of free blacks discussed.

The ugly "r" word came up. So there you go, it's out in the open. What the Park Service can't get through its collective head is that this is an endless war for truth and equality.

We, as a fledging nation, fought about slavery when the nation began. We worked ourselves up to internal war over it. We then tried to keep black people at the back of the bus until Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for leading a new kind of civil rights fight.

Not long ago I wrote about major changes at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., over the past 25 years. The foundations of slave quarters have been unearthed. The guides tell tales of slave families and their lineage. The stories are impressive.

This is what is wanted for Philly — acknowledgement of the avarice and the pain of slavery and of black people as equals.

The record must be set straight. Just give everyone the facts. Let them ferret out their own meanings. Hey, most heroes have clay feet.

Just think of what a triumph it would be to really end the Civil War.

 

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