Historians decry work near George Washington slave quarters

Associated Press Writer
March 31, 2002   
     When visitors walk through a brand-new $9 million pavilion that will house one of the nation's most enduring icons of freedom, they will be treading above the very spot where the first president kept his slaves.

While critics say building the Liberty Bell Center's entrance just beyond George Washington's slave quarters is tantamount to burying history - both literally and symbolically - others argue that since the underground structure isn't going to be demolished during construction, it must be covered over.

"If it's not going to be destroyed, the best preservation is to leave it in place - that's standard practice and one of the tenets of archaeology," National Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan said. "Excavating it can mean you have to destroy it." However, historian Gary B. Nash wonders whether the site's obvious contradiction of freedom and servitude might be too sensitive a subject for the Park Service to broach.

"Our historical memory is often managed and manipulated (but) it's downright being murdered in Philadelphia," said Nash, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and a scholar of the American Revolution.

The Liberty Bell wasn't well-known until the 1840s, when abolitionists gave it its name and used its inscription, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof," to trumpet antislavery's message.

The red-brick mansion at Sixth and Market (then called High) streets that became known as the President's House was where Washington lived and conducted the nation's business during his presidency. His successor, John Adams, also used the home during Philadelphia's time as the national capital, from 1790 to 1800.

Washington brought eight of his slaves from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia, which banned slavery but allowed slave owners arriving from other states to retain their human property. In another irony, Washington's cook, Hercules, and Martha Washington's personal servant, Oney Judge, eventually fled those now-buried slave quarters and gained their own freedom.

"This is the sort of stuff people would love to hear about, but it does get to the serious matter of how liberty and slavery coexisted," Nash said.

After Adams moved to the new District of Columbia in 1800, the President's House soon became a boarding house - architectural preservation not a priority then - and was partially razed in 1832. By 1951, the remaining walls were demolished to make way for Independence Mall; public toilets now occupy the spot.

Historians including Nash and Randall Miller of St. Joseph's University want the National Park Service to halt construction and perform an extensive archaeological evaluation, but the Park Service says that was already done and thousands of artifacts were recovered. The slave quarters were untouched.

"The excavation was very thorough ... we looked at everything we could have looked at," added Rebecca Yamin of John Milner Associates, which performed the work.

Federal policy bars excavation unless an archaeological site will be destroyed during construction, which is not the case with the slave quarters, she said.

The Liberty Bell Center, opening in 2003, is part of a $ 300 million redesign of Independence Mall that includes the new Independence Visitor's Center and the under-construction National Constitution Center.

If the backhoes can't be halted, The Independence Hall Association, a watchdog group, wants some kind of marker, perhaps like an outline marked in the paving around the center. City officials also want a commemoration, said Frank Keel, spokesman for Mayor John F. Street, adding that it was "too early to determine whether excavation can or cannot happen."

Pennsylvania ordered the 2,080-pound Liberty Bell from England in 1752. It hung in Independence Hall until the 1840s, when it irreparably cracked and was put on display.

More than 1.6 million people annually visit the Liberty Bell, which has been housed in a glass pavilion since 1976. The new site, only a few steps away, was designed to have more room for visitors and displays.

"It's not out of malice or ignorance ... but there's this element - there's a great shame involved (with slavery)," Nash said. "I believe the American people would find these stories fascinating. They are mature enough to look at history, warts and all, in the face."

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