Letting Freedom Ring True

The Liberty Bell Center will soon open next to a site where Washington once kept slaves.

PHILADELPHIA—For nearly two years historians and African-American leaders insisted that an inclusive story of freedom be told on Independence Mall at the new home for this city's most celebrated icon. On Oct. 9, the $12.6 million, glass-and-brick Liberty Bell Center will open with a dramatic view of Independence Hall and revamped exhibits that describe the bell's status as an "international symbol of liberty" in the context of America's struggles over slavery, civil rights, and equal rights for women.

On the drawing board is another grassroots-inspired project, near the center's entrance off Sixth and Market streets: a $4.5 million outdoor exhibition commemorating the so-called President's House. The nation's first executive mansion, once occupied by Benedict Arnold and later owned by Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris, was the residence of both George Washington and John Adams when Philadelphia was the national capital. In the 1790s, Washington's household included as many as eight slaves, two of whom eventually escaped to freedom. The building was largely demolished in the 1830s, and its last walls disappeared with construction of the mall in the 1950s; only a small plaque remained to mark its location.

Details about the President's House were little known until an article by historian Edward Lawler Jr. appeared in the January 2002 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Lawler used archival research to describe the house, pinpoint its location, and convey the incendiary news that "the last thing that a visitor will walk across … before entering the Liberty Bell Center will be the slave quarters that George Washington added to the President's House."

At first, historians pushed for excavation of the slave quarters. Archaeologists had previously unearthed an 18th-century icehouse, now preserved beneath the new center, but Lawler says that nothing of the slave quarters could have survived. The focus quickly turned to how to memorialize the presence of slaves in the heart of a park devoted to the ideals of the American Revolution. "The issue this brings up, even if the physical site can't be seen, is that there's still a history in a place," says Charlene Mires, an assistant professor of history at Villanova University and the author of Independence Hall in American Memory.

Tours of the Liberty Bell have always included references to slavery, says Phil Sheridan, a spokesman for Independence National Historical Park, managed by the National Park Service. "You can't mention the Liberty Bell," he says, "without talking about the people who named it: the abolitionists."

Suggestions for physical interpretations of the site ranged from a full-fledged house reconstruction to an outline of the house's footprint. The Park Service was aware of the President's House, Sheridan says, and had discussed rebuilding it over the years, but recent policy dictated otherwise: "We preserve history, but we don't put up reconstructions."

When the issue of the President's House first arose, the Park Service "didn't want to acknowledge the fact that there was a house there with enslaved Africans," says Charles L. Blockson, curator of Temple University's Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.

The initial recalcitrance was a mistake, says Laurie Olin, the landscape architect whose firm, Olin Partnership, is overseeing an ongoing reconstruction of the mall. "One has to say that the National Park Service, the minute this thing started, could have taken the high road," he says. "Instead, they just tried to stonewall and stall and make it go away."

Lawler has a more benign explanation: "The problem is that the Park Service is incredibly underfunded. They didn't have the time or money to look at this themselves. They were reluctant to endorse someone else's research without thoroughly vetting it, and they haven't vetted it yet."

Eventually, the Park Service did enlist the aid of historians in redoing its Liberty Bell exhibits, delaying a planned spring opening. And, responding to a congressional directive in 2002, the Park Service commissioned Olin Partnership and Vincent Ciulla Design to prepare a preliminary scheme for the 12,000-square-foot President's House site. The design includes artwork and texts on the U.S. presidents and slaves who lived there, the system and methods of slavery, and Philadelphia's African-Americans.

Despite community input into the project, the plan's January unveiling was marked by vitriol, with critics citing alleged historical omissions, a need to employ African-American designers, and the project's ongoing lack of funding.

Read more about sites related to African American heritage

But Michael Coard, a spokesman for the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), prefers to focus on signs of progress. "We've gotten the federal government, the most powerful government in the world, to go from denying to designing," he says. "This is truly historic. I don't know any place in the 50 states where anything like this has happened—and this has happened in one of the top three historic sites in America."

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