For generations, Philadelphia’s Fifth and Market was the site of arguably America’s most powerful symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell. Yet that symbol mocked those slaves and many African-American citizens. “Five feet from the cradle of liberty,” said Michael Coard, an attorney and activist, “was the hell of slavery.”
Coard told me and two dozen Trotter Group columnist society colleagues that only after 229 years did the federal government acknowledge African slavery in America on this site. The acknowledgement did not come from Congress or the White House. Instead, the National Park Service acknowledgement in 2005 was related to the first president’s house here where George Washington kept eight enslaved Africans.
Although the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act said African slaves who entered the commonwealth and resided here for more than six months had to be freed, Washington circumvented this law by rotating slaves in and out of town. Coard said those slaves were moved to New Jersey or other states in order to avoid spending 180 consecutive days in Pennsylvania. But along the way, two of the eight slaves, Hercules and Moll, nanny for Martha Washington, escaped to freedom.
Washington’s Philadelphia slaves became widely known this decade when the Liberty Bell was moved one city block to Sixth Street and the Africans’ living quarters were revealed. Coard said the Park Service knew about the quarters as far back as 1974, but tried to suppress the fact in much the same way – and for the same reasons – that President Thomas Jefferson’s long-time relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave in his household, was suppressed and ignored at Monticello: No one in authority wanted to think about it.
In 2002, Coard and colleagues from the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition [ATAC] staged a relentless crusade of letter writing and street demonstrations to pressure the park service to acknowledge and honor the slaves and their history in Philadelphia. Said Coard, “We used cultural ammunition against the National Park Service.”
The good news is that reconciliation is under way. Coard and ATAC members found receptive ears in Mary Bomar, then superintendent of Independence National Park who went on to become director of the Park Service. “Mary Bomar listened to our demands,” explained the activist, “because we found out what she already knew.”
“We pressed the most powerful government in the world to go from denying to designing.”
So with the U.S. government acknowledgement of Washington’s Philadelphia slaves – I emphasize the locale because George and wife Martha had 300 additional slaves in Virginia – historical artifacts that honor those African men and women are to be prominently displayed for visitors who come to the hallowed ground of freedom.
Visitors who want to go see the Liberty Bell, said Coard, will have to pass the slavery exhibit once it opens, possibly next year. That is appropriate because telling the Africans’ story is not about guilt or shame, but context and the struggle for freedom. That should resonate in many ways since even the name of the Bell itself owes a debt to the struggles African-Americans. The Liberty Bell was not originally called by that name, scholar Charles Blockson of Temple University reminded us columnists on our recent visit. Before 1830, it was referred to as the State House Bell, but the cracked symbol was renamed by abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass.
ATAC got the federal acknowledgement of slavery in mid-2005, plus $5.1 million in city and federal funds committed to build an appropriate monument to the slaves. So, the story should be over, right? No, this American story got richer.
The July 4, 2007 opening of the exhibit was delayed, said Coard, because an archeological dig of the site uncovered three major things: The foundation of the kitchen where slaves like lead cook Hercules labored, an underground tunnel slaves used to carry meals to the President House, and, a bow window. This oval-shaped window inspired the design of the Oval Office at the existing president house, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in the District of Columbia. In Philadelphia, Kelly/Maiello architects were designing the replica slave quarters. Philadelphia Mayor John Street, said Coard, was to meet soon with the architect to decide which design of three options gets the green light.