A less-than-ringing tribute


Debate: The disclosure that the new site for the Liberty Bell once housed George Washington's slaves has inspired a passionate discussion of bondage and freedom.

May 05, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- George Washington's slaves slept here -- right on the site of the new home planned for the Liberty Bell. And that disclosure has kindled a passionate debate over how to commemorate the existence of bondage alongside one of the nation's most enduring symbols of freedom.

This uncomfortable juxtaposition was first divulged in the winter issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in a lengthy article by Edward Lawler Jr., a musician, writer and part-time historian. The entrance to the National Park Service's new Liberty Bell Center, he wrote, is partly on the location of the downtown house that served as the country's first executive mansion. And when Washington lived there, he kept slaves.

The revelation has prompted newspaper articles, op-ed page essays, talk-show discussion and e-mails, many of which have accused the Park Service of covering up an embarrassing element of the history of the "Philadelphia White House."

Suggestions on what should be done have ranged from halting construction so archaeologists can dig for slave artifacts to adding substantial interpretive exhibits on slavery and freedom to the new football field-length pavilion.

"For the Park Service to plan on using the slave quarters as nothing more than a doormat to the Liberty Bell pavilion is not just insensitive, but downright obscene," wrote Phil Lapansky, a research librarian, in one of dozens of critical e-mails posted on the Web site of Independence Hall Association, a private local historical group. "Blacks held in bondage across the street from the Constitutional Convention by this nation's first president deserve better."

A public restroom now occupies the site of the President's House, which is marked by a 3 1/2 -by-4 1/2 -foot plaque. The plaque notes that first Washington and then John Adams resided there during the decade when this city was the temporary capital. It makes no reference to Washington keeping slaves there.

Inside the visitors center at Independence Hall National Park, a display on the Liberty Bell says that the famed 251-year-old artifact's name was coined by anti-slavery groups in the early 19th century, who used it as a symbol of their cause. The display does not mention that slaves were once kept on the grounds.

The Park Service -- which is building the Liberty Bell Center as part of a $300 million makeover that includes a new National Constitution Center scheduled to open next year -- has rejected as unlikely to be productive the proposal to excavate the site. The agency has also spurned as potentially too confusing for visitors the suggestion of having the floor plan of the building that served as the president's house from 1790 to 1800 marked in pavement.

But the Park Service, which initially intended to identify the site of the house with a sidewalk marker and plaque similar to what now exists, has altered its plans in response to the outcries from historians and others.

Preliminary plans now call for one of 10 exhibits inside the new center to focus on the institution of slavery as well as the Liberty Bell's importance to the anti-slavery movements. Plans also call for the site of the house to be marked by several outdoor "wayside" exhibits that could include information that Washington brought several slaves with him from his home in Virginia during his tenure as the country's first president.

Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan says the federal agency never intended to censor history by not highlighting the presence of Washington's slaves here. The issue was never raised during 4 1/2 years of public meetings on the park's redesign, Sheridan says, adding that it was only since a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Lawler's research that people began demanding that the presence of slaves be noted in the exhibit.

"People have picked up on the slavery issue," he says. "What many seem to want is slavery interpreted" at the site.

But Randall M. Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University, says that whatever is done needs to be more than "an offshoot or an aside" to serve as a reminder that freedom was something that was "always contested, contradictory, incomplete."

Miller says he would like visitors to have to confront those questions through a major display of documents and artifacts highlighting slavery before reaching the Liberty Bell.

Historians had been aware that Washington brought slaves with him from Virginia, Miller says, but the fact was "not part of the narrative" of Washington's time in Philadelphia until Lawler brought it to the fore.

"He revisited the ground in every sense," Miller says of Lawler.

Lawler, 43, began what became an exhaustive five-year research quest into the history of the house out of a sense of personal chagrin.

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