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Tour honors slaves of George Washington

'Trail of Blood & Tears'

By Betsey Piette

Two prominent buildings now stand as opposing pillars of Independence Park in Philadelphia's historic district.

At one end, at 6th and Arch streets, is the newly opened National Constitution Center, built by a construction firm that excluded Black workers. The target of a national protest on July 4, it houses a museum dedicated to the history of the U.S. Constitution. This document, when penned in 1787, protected only the rights of white male property owners.

At the park's southern end sits Independence Hall, constructed by the labor of enslaved Africans. They were counted as only three-fifths of a "free inhabitant" by the Constitution's authors, who also allowed the importation of slaves to continue until 1808 and let the national government collect a tax on imported slaves. The first U.S. census in 1790 reported 757,000 African Americans--about 694,000 of them enslaved--out of a total population of nearly 4 million.

Trail of blood and tears:
a day of remembrance

The park service offers tours around Independence Park. Guides offer a wealth of information designed to glorify the men who declared independence from British colonialism, as well as Philadelphia's role as the country's first capital, where the Constitution was written and where the first U.S. president, George Washington, resided.

The location of the president's house--or the Philadelphia White House, as it was sometimes called--became a subject of controversy in 2002 when the public learned that Washington had unlawfully housed eight or more enslaved Africans on the property. This came out in connection with construction of the Liberty Bell Center and the National Constitution Center.

The holding of slaves on a permanent basis was illegal in Pennsylvania, even at that time. To get around this, Washington would periodically return the eight enslaved men and women to his plantation in Virginia so they could not be considered "permanent inhabitants."

Attempts to bury this history along with the artifacts uncovered during these construction projects have resulted in numerous protests by the African American community here. Last year the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition--ATAC--organized hundreds of protesters to demand that Independence National Historical Park totally fund a commemorative project honoring the eight enslaved Africans and all Africans who contributed mightily to building the United States.

Hundreds came out again on July 3 of this year to continue this struggle for reparations. They were seeking both input for such a project from the African American community and a portion of the $19-million annual budget for the maintenance of the $137-million National Constitution Center.

On July 2, Generations Unlimited, an African American community organization, had led a walking tour dedicated to the memory of those enslaved ancestors, under the banner, "No more lies." Over 400 people participated in this tour--a memorable and moving experience rich in history that is seldom, if ever, presented in U.S. schools.

The Trail of Blood and Tears Tour began at 2 Front St., site of the London Coffeehouse, built in 1702. Prospective buyers used to come there to examine and purchase enslaved Africans who had recently arrived on slave ships docked at a wharf on the Delaware River. One such ship, the Mytrilla, owned by a consortium of slave-trading merchants, carried the Liberty Bell to America. Ironically, the bell would later become the symbol of the anti-slavery abolitionist movement.

The tour continued past the site of the first White House, between 6th and 7th on Walnut and Locust streets. One of the five city squares designed by William Penn, it was originally called the Southeast Square, but later named Washington Square to honor the first president. Tradition holds that African Americans called it "Congo Square," as enslaved Africans were brought to this square once a month before they were sold to buyers from Philadelphia and elsewhere.

The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1787 by Rev. Richard Allen on the oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African Americans in the U.S., was another stop on the tour. The site was a focal point for the struggle for freedom among African Americans. A few blocks away, the tour ended at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, where an unmarked grave contains the remains of "Black Sam"--Samuel Fraunces, a freeman and soldier in the Revolutionary War, steward of Washington's house, and founder of famous taverns in both Philadelphia and New York, who died in 1795.

Also buried in the cemetery are eight Seneca, Mohawk, Iroquois and Delaware chiefs, killed in 1794 when Washington unleashed General Anthony Wayne to wipe out their tribes just a year after signing a peace pact with them.

In 1841, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a speech entitled "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?" in which he chastised those glorifying the U.S. holiday: "Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me ... you may rejoice, I must mourn."

Over 200 years of U.S. history have failed to erase this disparity.

Reprinted from the July 17, 2003, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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