When visitors alight from their tour buses for Friday's opening
of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, they'll be
celebrating Independence Day in a place where the story of American
freedom is anything but simple.
The center is part of the 45-acre Independence National
Historical Park, where ongoing revitalization plans are a flash
point for fierce debates over whose truth is being told, and how.
The symbolic fault lines can be found just beneath the soil.
Under the bus drop-off area, for instance, lies the historic
homesite of James Dexter, a former slave who cofounded The Free
African Society in 1787. The site would have been paved over with no
exploration, if not for a concerted drive by local African-American
Now that it has been excavated and commemorated in an exhibit,
the site can put into context to a more familiar event of 1787 - the
Constitutional Convention. Delegates met three blocks from Dexter's
home, at what is now known as Independence Hall, to hammer out the
terms of the new nation - including counting each slave as three-
fifths of a person and extending the slave trade for the next 20
Although disputes continue to bubble up, many historians,
activists, and park officials say this juncture is a unique
opportunity to examine the paradoxes at the country's very
foundation. While popular history often relegates slavery to the
shadows when celebrating the Founding Fathers, now its inextricable
links to the economic and political beginnings of the United States
are being brought to light.
"It will challenge old ideas [for people to see that] America's
most-agreed-upon 'birthplace of freedom' was 'complicated' by
slavery - that is something that Americans need to know," says
Clement Alexander Price, a history professor at Rutgers University,
and a consultant to the park service on the site where Presidents
George Washington and John Adams lived and governed.
"Liberty for some Americans came at the price of enslavement for
other Americans," he says. "The 1790s was a very critical period,
because it was the first decade of the new republic, and at end of
it, the country had pretty much decided that it was not going to
deal with slavery."
Some activists say decisionmakers today are still not dealing
adequately with the slavery issue - and they worry that, with over
$100 million of federal money being poured into the park's
revitalization, this key opportunity might be squandered. At the
time of publication, two groups were planning demonstrations: a
candlelight memorial walk Wednesday to Philadelphia sites where
Africans were sold as slaves; and a "Black Independence Day"
Thursday on Independence Mall, to "free" the stories of African
For their part, representatives of the Constitution Center (an
independent nonprofit organization) and the park say they've never
had any intention of shying away from slavery and other complexities
of early American history.
Central to that story are the slavery compromises at the
Constitutional Convention (see story), which left a mixed legacy of
prosperity and victimization, unity and civil war, treasured
diversity and modern-day racism. Efforts to portray that legacy are
often caught between two camps: those who say there's not enough
truth-telling about racial injustice, and those who say that a
patriotic view of the Founding Fathers will be unnecessarily sullied
by dwelling too much on slavery.
"There are lots of people who think that kids will not want to be
American if they learn [about slavery and] genocide against
Indians," says Gary Nash, a historian at the University of
California, Los Angeles, who has done extensive research on Colonial
Pennsylvania and has advocated for greater representation of African-
American history at Independence Park. But for the most part, he
adds, "Americans do not think that it is unpatriotic to talk about
our blemishes. …