Liberty Bell site has an element of slavery, too

Park Service faulted for ignoring old slave quarters in Philadelphia

April 28, 2002|By Dinitia Smith | Dinitia Smith,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The National Park Service's plans to showcase the Liberty Bell next year in a new $9 million pavilion in Philadelphia have come under attack from historians and local residents, who have accused the Park Service of trying to cover up a less noble element of American history on the same spot: the existence of slave quarters.

The pavilion, to be called the Liberty Bell Center, is part of an ambitious $300 million redesign of Independence National Historic Park. It will be located partly on the former site of the Robert Morris house, where George Washington lived during his presidency and where his slaves slept, ate and worked.

The loose-knit coalition of historians, led by Gary B. Nash, an expert on the American Revolution and Philadelphia history, and the Independence Hall Association, a citizens' group, have asked the Park Service to present a complete explanation of the Morris house's history in the area outside the new center, including a full-size floor plan outlined in stone, a description of the mansion and first-person accounts from the 18th century. They are also asking that the exhibition inside depict slavery more extensively.

Park service balks

The Park Service has refused, saying an elaborate floor plan and detailed information outdoors would be confusing for visitors, although earlier this month it did agree to add an additional interpretive panel to the exhibition planned for the interior of the new center. That panel will be "an examination of the institution of slavery, focusing on its 18th-century Philadelphia context," according to a summary provided by the Park Service.

Those proposals are inadequate, say the historians, who sent a detailed letter to Martha B. Aikens, the superintendent of the park, requesting a meeting with her.

"What we are talking about is historical memory," said Nash, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, who pointed out that it was abolitionists who made the Liberty Bell a symbol of the nation's freedom. "You either cure historical amnesia, or you perpetuate it," he said. "This is a wonderful example of trying to perpetuate historical amnesia."

The dispute over the new center began when Edward Lawler Jr., a local scholar, started researching the Morris mansion, which stood at 190 High St., on the south side of what is today Market Street, one block from Independence Hall.

He said he spent three years delving into original records on the house. "I decided not to trust anything," Lawler said, that had been written about the mansion before. At the Library of Congress, he found a copy of a 1785 ground plan of the mansion. He also discovered letters between Washington and his secretary, Tobias Lear, in which they discussed building an extension to the smokehouse for stable slaves.

8 or 9 slaves there

Lawler said Washington maintained eight or nine slaves in the house. In 1780 Pennsylvania enacted a law providing for gradual emancipation; it permitted residents of other states living in Pennsylvania to keep slaves. Washington gradually replaced his own slaves with German indentured servants.

Lawler said he notified the Park Service of his findings a year ago. In January, he published them in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the scholarly journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Robert Morris House, named for the Philadelphia financier who owned it, was where Washington stayed when he presided over the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, and it later served as the executive mansion of the United States from 1790 to 1800. Slaves waited on the many visiting dignitaries at official functions there during Washington's residence, in addition to caring for the personal needs of the president and his family. Martha Washington's personal slave, Oney Judge, escaped from the house in 1796, as the Washingtons were eating dinner. Washington's prized cook, Hercules, fled in 1797.

After Washington left the house, President John Adams, who was opposed to slavery, moved in. (Benedict Arnold also once lived there and began his treasonous correspondence with the British in the house in 1779). When Adams moved out in 1800, the building was turned into a hotel. The hotel was not a success, and in 1832 it was gutted, leaving only the side walls and foundation standing. The walls were finally demolished in 1951 to create Independence Mall.

A public toilet now stands on the site, with a small plaque commemorating the house. The Park Service plans to tear down the toilet, mark the site of the house and install a new interpretive panel outside. Future visitors to the Liberty Bell Center will cross more than 140 feet of what was once the president's house, including the slave quarters.

At the moment, the Liberty Bell is housed in a glass pavilion a few steps from where the new center will stand.

The additional panel that the Park Service has agreed to install inside the center, Nash said, "speaks mostly to the achievement of American independence and the devotion to the ideal of freedom thereafter."

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