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Long-buried stories of slavery now heard

Back in the 1970s, when the first African American rangers arrived at Independence National Historical Park, they quickly noticed that little of their own heritage appeared in stories told at famous park sites.

National Park Service Ranger Joe Becton with portrait of Lucretia Mott, beneath a historic marker for Pennsylvania Hall, a stops on Independence Park Underground Railroad tour. (Tom Gralish / Inquirer)
National Park Service Ranger Joe Becton with portrait of Lucretia Mott, beneath a historic marker for Pennsylvania Hall, a stops on Independence Park Underground Railroad tour. (Tom Gralish / Inquirer)Read more

Back in the 1970s, when the first African American rangers arrived at Independence National Historical Park, they quickly noticed that little of their own heritage appeared in stories told at famous park sites.

It rankled, and one of them argued that the narratives should be more inclusive. "Hey, we need to get some more diverse stories going here," he urged, according to Joe Becton, a park ranger since 1986. But, says Becton, it "didn't have much impact."

In the early 1980s, Charles Blockson, curator of the Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, argued that at least the abolitionists, who named the Liberty Bell and transformed it into an antislavery symbol, should get a nod. The park eventually agreed, but in the view of many, that nod often amounted to only cursory mentions at the old Liberty Bell pavilion.

In the 1990s, a new management plan acknowledged that African American history should be a part of park offerings, and suggested African American programming for Washington Square. Again, not much happened.

But since 2002 - when controversy erupted over slavery in George Washington's household and the park's failure to acknowledge it - a great change has swept over Independence Park.

Becton now conducts popular Underground Railroad walking tours.

Liberty Bell visitors now hear about abolitionism, slavery, women's rights, immigrant struggles, human rights around the world - and the role the bell has played in all.

The National Constitution Center now displays African American artifacts found during the archaeological excavation that preceded the center's construction. A private organization, it has presented programs and exhibitions of particular significance to African Americans and is part of the city's Quest for Freedom trail, which traces the course of the Underground Railroad.

In a year or so, according to officials there, visitors at the African American Museum of Philadelphia a block off Independence Mall on Seventh Street will see a new permanent exhibition on 18th- and early-19th-century black life in Philadelphia.

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, another Quest for Freedom stop, is raising funds to build a $12 million museum next to its historic church at Sixth and Lombard, for exhibitions on founder Richard Allen and Sarah Allen and the church's role in the beginnings of black America.

The park has agreed to let the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia set up shop in the First Bank of the United States on Third Street.

Lights of Liberty, the sound-and-light show offered at the park, acquaints visitors with slave-owner Benjamin Franklin, and slave liberators - the British Redcoats.

Once Upon a Nation, the private group that organizes costumed storytelling around the park, includes the stories of Oney Judge, one of Washington's slaves who escaped from Philadelphia in 1796; William and Peter Still and Fredrick Douglass, the great black abolitionists; Henry Box Brown, a slave who mailed himself from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia; James Forten, a black businessman who worked closely with Mother Bethel's Richard Allen; and many other stories previously untold in the park.

Christ Church, a park partner, has begun exploring the significance of slavery in its own past and is now presenting performances in its burial grounds dramatizing stories connected with the church and the early city.

And if all goes according to plan (plans that have been delayed several times already), a memorial to the President's House, the nation's first executive mansion, will open sometime in 2010.

Located at the doorstep of the Liberty Bell Center at Sixth and Market, the memorial will commemorate not only Washington and his successor, John Adams, who also lived there, but also the nine enslaved Africans in the Washington household, and by extension, all who have lived in bondage on American soil.

The impetus for all this was the controversy that erupted in 2002 when it was reported that visitors to the new Liberty Bell Center would walk over the unmarked spot where Washington quartered enslaved Africans. Incensed citizens groups and scholars pressed the park to acknowledge the house and all its occupants, free and powerful, unfree and powerless.

In the ensuing tussle, a sheaf of neglected stories was uncovered and viewed as if for the first time.

"In many ways, Independence Park can be seen as a shrine to the civil religion of democracy," says Jed Levin, head of the Independence Living History Center, a new public archaeology lab analyzing more than a million artifacts, many related to early black life, that were unearthed in the park in recent years.

"It was very much a shrine, with several key icons that told a story about who we thought we were as a nation," Levin continues. "It had the value to make people feel good about their country. The story told . . . was not untrue, but it was so abbreviated as to be untrue about who we are and what our origins are. Now we've moved to a much more complex understanding of our origins and who we are as a nation."

The park, says Levin, was "changing slowly" before the President's House controversy. "But when you site a building and it touches a nerve, that gives the opportunity for a public that feels left out to become involved."

Attorney Michael Coard, 43, cofounded Avenging the Ancestors Coalition to push Independence Park toward acknowledging and commemorating Washington's slaves. It generated thousands of letters, mounted petitions and led demonstrationsCongress mandated a memorial; Mayor Street backed the project.

But equally as significant as the memorial has been the enrichment of the history now told there. For example, the remote and flawless President Washington has been replaced by a more complex and human figure: a man, a slave-owner who fought to keep his slaves, and freed them upon his death.

"It's a much more interesting story," says Michael Zuckerman, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. "This is a story full of conflict. . . . It rings right. It rings true. It's the scuzzy part of the great man. But it turns out it's not scuzzy - it's part of his wrestling with his own conscience. In the end . . . in the freeing of his slaves, he does everything he tried to avoid.

"It is so much more dramatic, so much more redemptive, so much more inspiring than anything we got out of that white, alabaster saint."

Steve Sitarski, head of park visitor and information services, said a new long-range interpretive plan focuses on diversifying park stories - and increasing diversity of visitors. A decade ago, they were virtually all white; now Sitarski estimates minority visitors in the 20- to 25-percent range. (The park has no reliable statistics, officials said.)

"We are making a concerted effort to create programming to attract broader audiences," Sitarski says.

Becton's twice-a-week Underground Railroad tour is one example. It begins along what he calls "the Highway to Freedom" - Sixth Street. From Mother Bethel at Lombard, where Richard and Sarah Allen provided a major way station on the railroad, north to the site where abolitionist-built Pennsylvania Hall once stood, Becton traces a previously hidden, ignored or unknown history.

Becton, a thoughtful man, is filled with stories that seem to cover every plot of land along Sixth Street.

The Washington Square he conjures is a plot used by Africans in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a cemetery and Sunday gathering place. Oral tradition has it that it was called Congo Square, though not all contemporary historians agree, he says.

Independence Hall, he notes, was the site of Fugitive Slave Act trials in the 1850s. The President's House at Market Street is where Washington's slaves toiled and where the president signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

Becton leads his groups up Sixth Street to the former site of Pennsylvania Hall, north of Arch Street. Built by abolitionists, it was burned to the ground by an angry mob three days into its first event, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

At Fifth and Arch, Becton points out where abolitionist William Still had his offices. He notes where the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833 and where the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society was located.

None of this was on the park's agenda a decade ago. "Throughout my entire career I've been pushing for these kinds of stories," he says. "They are incredible."

He pauses, then continues.

"I was certainly a little disappointed, at first, that none of the buildings were still here. The Adelphi Building [near Fifth and Walnut, where the American Anti-Slavery Society convened] is gone. The Pennsylvania Hall building is gone.

"I was concerned about that - but then it turned out to be one of the strong points of the tour."

And why was that?

A small smile.

"Well, you're going around and you're talking about this building that used to be there, and how important it was, and that building that used to be here and how important it was, and this building that used to be here. We're famous for our historic restorations and stewardship in Philadelphia, but all these things somehow seem to be gone.

"It adds a special flavor to the tour, and raises the question for the visitor: Is this coincidence?"

Homage to the Nine

At 4:30 p.m. today, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition holds its annual July 3 event at the President's House, Sixth and Market Streets. Members will gather with local political figures for a reenactment of the lives of the nine enslaved Africans who lived there during George Washington's tenure. Information: 215-552-8751 or


For photos, video, audio and stories about the President's House excavation, go to