Historians decry Liberty Bell home’s location

By Joann Loviglio, The Associated Press
Saturday March 30, 2002

PHILADELPHIA — When visitors walk through the brand-new $9 million pavilion housing one of the nation’s most enduring icons of freedom, they will tread above the spot where the first president kept his slaves. 

But even before the Liberty Bell Center opens in 2003, a debate is brewing over how best to treat the place where slavery and freedom co-existed. 

Some historians say building the center’s entrance just beyond the site of George Washington’s slave quarters is tantamount to burying history — both literally and symbolically. The National Park Service argues the underground structure, yards from where the bell that became a symbol of the abolitionist movement, has to be covered over to be preserved. 

“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, critics say it appears that the government is avoiding the obvious contradiction of freedom and servitude. They want the National Park Service to halt construction and perform an extensive archaeological evaluation, though they say there are no plans to force the issue with a lawsuit. 

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

The Park Service says it already has done excavation work and recovered thousands of artifacts. 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. 

The Liberty Bell Center 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. 

The new center is just steps from where the Liberty Bell has been displayed in a glass pavilion since 1976. It attracts 1.6 million visitors a year. 

At the very least, The Independence Hall Association, a watchdog group, wants a memorial, perhaps an outline marking the house where Washington once lived. 

City officials also want some sort of commemoration, said Frank Keel, spokesman for Mayor John F. Street, adding that it was “too early to determine whether excavation can or cannot happen.” 

Washington’s house was a red-brick mansion at Sixth and Market (then called High) streets, where the founding father conducted the nation’s business. It’s also where he brought eight slaves from Mount Vernon, including his cook, Hercules, and Martha Washington’s personal servant, Oney Judge, who eventually fled those now-buried slave quarters and gained their own freedom. 

Washington’s successor, John Adams, also used the home during Philadelphia’s time as the national capital, from 1790 to 1800, before moving to Washington, D.C. 

In 1951, the remains of the house were demolished to make way for Independence Mall. Public toilets now occupy the spot. 

“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. 


On the Net: 

Independence National Historical Park, http://www.nps.gov/inde/liberty-bell.html 

Independence Hall Association, http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/index.htm