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Philadelphia’s Dirty Slave Secret to be Told

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By Michael Z. Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from the Final Call

(NNPA)—The names are shrouded by a history that was never told—Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels and Oney Judge. All labored without pay as slave servants to the first family of this nation, in George and Martha Washington’s Philadelphia household.

In all probability their unique story would never have been revealed had it not been for a committed group of community leaders.

The group known as the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) disrupted the plan of the National Park Service and the Independence National Historical Parks to yet again sweep Black history under the rug: In this instance, to literally bury it.

Colonialist William Penn owned at least 12 slaves, according to writer Melissa Dribben in a recent article in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” Sunday magazine. In the mid to late 1760s, nearly 1,500 Blacks lived in slavery in Philadelphia, the article said. Among those who owned slaves were Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Miffin, Robert Morris and John Dickerson.

It is the Robert Morris mansion—which served as the first presidential home of President Washington and family—that is the source of the controversy. The mansion, now demolished, sat at the exact site where the park service now plans to move the Liberty Bell.

Initially, White critics of the Liberty Bell project were concerned that the federal agencies were ignoring the fact that the spot was the original site of the home of America’s first president. It was later discovered, however, that the entrance to the planned Liberty Bell Pavilion was being constructed directly on top of the stable where President Washington quartered his slaves.

It was at this point that ATAC began to attack.
The coalition of Black community activists, elected officials, historians, religious leaders and civic organizations went into public relations high gear, demanding that the slaves be given a voice at the historical site.

Initially, the park service remained steadfast in its position that the only story to be told was that of the Liberty Bell, according to spokesperson Phil Sheridan. Through public protest and unceasing lobbying, the park service began to back down.

Daniel Reidenbach, acting superintendent of Independence Park, recently unveiled the new plans at the African American Museum. The preliminary design for the site of the president’s house not only prominently recognizes the eight Black slaves but other acknowledgments honoring slaves in America.

Gary B. Nash, a noted historian from the University of California at Los Angeles who has been characterized as “spending half a century pushing history beyond the stories of powerful White men,” appeared at Christ Church on Jan. 25. He aligned with ATAC in a speech titled, “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll?”

“There is such a thing as managing memory, manipulating memory, and there’s also such a thing as murdering memory. I wouldn’t want memory murdered at the Liberty Bell,” he said.

ATAC spokesman Michael Coard, Esq., called the preliminary design plan “really impressive.”

“I can’t be more pleased with what we witnessed at the meeting,” Coard said. “What I see ahead is something our little Black boys and girls can beam with pride at when they walk through Independence Mall and witness the true history of America and their brave ancestors.”

The project, however, still remains embroiled in controversy. Sheridan, the park service spokesperson, indicated there was no money presently to fund the exhibit, which would cost $4.5 million.

Adding insult to injury, according to Philadelphia historian Lorene Cary, “The Constitution Center’s bus depot will allow tourists to drive over the place where James Oronke Dexter lived.” Dexter, she said, was a free Black man and a member of the Free African Society, one of the earliest self-help groups in the United States.

“Because construction has not paused for excavation, the remains of the Dexter house, with its wealth of buried artifacts, will lie underneath the depot,” Cary said.

A source associated with the Park Service Planning Committee who wished to remain anonymous, told The Final Call, “The artifacts stand a real chance of being destroyed as the intention is to use the Dexter family home as a storage facility (for the bus depot) without benefit of excavation.”

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