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Annette John-Hall: Fitting that black history exhibit starts here

It seems these days there's a renewed interest in history. Lincoln. FDR. Truman. And now Obama. It's nothing new for those of us in Philadelphia.

It seems these days there's a renewed interest in history. Lincoln. FDR. Truman. And now Obama.

It's nothing new for those of us in Philadelphia.

History is in the air, all around us, underneath us.

And not just in the books.

But we take it for granted, walking with little interest past historical markers, not stopping to marvel at architecture, not considering often enough the significance of the places where tourists flock.

When I heard that an acclaimed exhibition of African American history would open at the National Constitution Center on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, I thought: What better place than Philadelphia, the undisputed steward of our nation's story?

The birthplace of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution. And the Free African Society.

It's where our Founding Fathers worked with whites of conscience and character and with free blacks of courage and conviction to begin to figure out how to form a more perfect union.

Even now, history oozes out of Philadelphia like biblical sweet honey out of a rock.

In the spring of 2007, archaeologists unearthed slave quarters at the President's House, making international news. And just last summer, the remains of the Rev. Stephen Gloucester, a former slave and an abolitionist, were discovered at a 160-year-old former church - all adding to the predictable constants and messy contradictions that are American history.

Centuries of progress

Which brings us back to "America I AM: The African American Imprint," which celebrates more than 400 years of black achievement.

It's a 15,000-square-foot exhibition, a continuum of artifacts, documents and photos that all add to the tapestry of America's story: A letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to protect Frederick Douglass from harassment as he campaigned for African American rights; W.E.B. Du Bois' graduation cap; a key from the Birmingham jail where King was held; Malcolm X's journal; Muhammad Ali's robe from his "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman in Zaire; and among the other nods to pop culture, the funky purple electric guitar that Prince played at Super Bowl XLI.

And its newest artifact: the signed original of Barack Obama's pivotal speech on race - delivered at the Constitution Center - whose significance will be punctuated when he is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

Continuing our story

"You cannot look at Barack Obama and not think of the things that happened in Philadelphia, what people pushed for, what they fought for," says the Rev. Mark Tyler, the newly installed pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, who sees Obama's ascension as the first African American president as a continuation of Philadelphia's rich historical legacy.

Whether by accident or intent, Obama left the history-making speech at a lectern that March night.

Lucky for all of us, Kevin Kilbourne of the center's audiovisual staff sensed history and had the presence of mind to retrieve the speech. Obama signed it during a return visit, and it will be showcased in "America I AM," which runs Jan. 15 through May 3 before continuing on a national tour.

Just two days after the exhibit opens, Obama is scheduled to return to Philadelphia en route to his inauguration, replicating the last leg of Lincoln's inaugural journey.

Somehow, you think, he doesn't want to miss a chance to return to the land of Richard Allen and Benjamin Franklin, of William Penn and Absalom Jones, of Lucretia Mott and William Still - where the founders crafted our nation's imprint and challenged us to perfect it.

That challenge isn't lost on Princeton professor Cornel West, a member of the exhibit's advisory board.

"In this age of Obama," he says, the timing of this exhibition "is perfect. But in the end, it's not about Barack Obama. It's about Barack Obama's ability to empower everyday people."

And for all of us to understand, profoundly, the magnitude of the historical journey that we, the people, are on.