It Is Time to Be Honest About Our Historical Legacy

When I again felt restless and wanted to explore Philadelphia, I turned to Esther Klein’s Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia. This time I used the guidebook to lead a walking tour around Colonial Philadelphia with a friend who had never seen this side of Philadelphia before. My walking tour left me thinking about how the countless guidebooks I read this summer present Philadelphia’s history, and how the city’s history has always been up for debate, including today.

Before I dive into the bulk of this post, which is about my time at Independence Square and the Liberty Bell Center, I would like to take a few moments to gush about a few of the other stops on the tour. One of my favorite stops was Elfreth’s Alley. This street is the oldest colonial road in Philadelphia, and the preservation of the homes along the street as well as the cobblestone and brick walkway is remarkable. While I stood in the middle of the street and gazed around, I couldn’t help but feel removed from the present and transported back three hundred years ago. Christ Church and its burial ground was another noteworthy stop if only because it was a constant in most of the guidebooks I read this summer. The final stop I loved was the Walnut Street Theatre which is the oldest theatre in the United States. While viewing this storied house of entertainment, I was struck by how important entertainment has always been to society as a way to both escape from and confront the problems we face. Independence Square, however, is the place that grabbed my attention the most and left me thinking for days about how we still understand and represent our collective history.

The walking tour began at Independence Square, a location that is presented as one of the most historic areas in the country. It is undeniable that all of the buildings in Independence Square played a role in the birth of the United States of America. In fact, if you can remember back to the days of elementary school, there is a good chance that you not only heard the names of some of these buildings countless times, but also learned about their role in establishing liberty. After all, there is Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed;  Congress Hall where the United States Congress met before the country’s capital left Philadelphia; Old City Hall where Philadelphia’s city government met daily until the construction of the City Hall in Penn Square; the American Philosophical Society which is a library and institution founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 that continues to serve the public today; and Carpenter’s Hall where the first Continental Congress met. I did not remember much from my only prior visit to Independence Square in seventh grade so I was unsure of what to expect when I arrived. I was curious if there would be a rejection of critical thinking regarding the buildings and the people who inhabited them as I found was a consistent practice in the guidebooks from decades ago. I wondered whether or not there had been a shift away from the rose-tinted view of Philadelphian and American history that I read this summer. 

The long lines and heat outside were simply too much for us to wait in line to see the inside of every building in Independence Square, but we did wait to see the Liberty Bell Center. As I waited in line to get into the Center, I was able to read informational signs on the wall which detailed the history of slavery in the United States and Philadelphia. This was quite the divergence from the guidebooks I read this summer, as the topic of slavery rarely came up during my research so I was initially quite impressed with the Liberty Bell Center. To put it in perspective, during my research slavery only surfaced eight times out of 318 pages of annotations that I typed covering the guidebooks I read at the Temple Library and at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Bear in mind that these 318 pages of annotations represent thousands of pages. These eight references looked at one location where slaves had been regularly sold, the African Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and also where the first (white) protest against slavery was held in 1688. I will let you guess which one of those discussions of slavery dominated the conversation in the guidebooks. Needless to say, I was interested if the rest of the exhibit at the Liberty Bell Center would present a bland apolitical approach to the United States’ history of slavery, offer a rousing criticism of the United States’ past and the way it affects the present, or fall somewhere in between.

The first sign that caught my eye on my way into the center was a display simply titled “Memorial.” I found the message on this sign to be the most powerful of the entire exhibit despite it depicting our founding documents as pieces of history removed from the white supremacy and violence against marginalized bodies that was endorsed and practiced by the Founding Fathers and solidified in our government’s framework. 

The sign reads: “This enclosed space is dedicated to millions of men, women, and children of African descent who lived, worked, and died as enslaved people in the United States of America. They should never again be forgotten. One of two smokehouse rooms in which three enslaved men slept – Giles, Paris, and Austin – once stood in this area. The close proximity to the Liberty Bell Center reminds us that liberty was not originally intended for all. It is difficult to understand how men who spoke so passionately of liberty and freedom were unable to see the contradiction, the injustice, and the immorality of their actions. Enslaved Africans and their descendants endured brutality and mistreatment for over 200 years as their labor built and enriched the nation. The struggle for freedom and political, social, and economic equality continued even after the legal ending of slavery. The devastating effects of slavery continue to affect race relations to this day. Yet, we must continue to strive for the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. The African symbols, words, and quotations on the exterior and interior walls speak to the spirit of hope, the resilience of the human spirit, and the determination of a people to arise out of bondage to freedom.”

Other displays throughout the exhibit examineed some of the conditions of slavery in the United States, actions taken by abolitionists to end slavery as well actions taken by slave owners and the government to keep the brutal system of slavery intact, and the symbolism of the Liberty Bell. After seeing the “Memorial” sign’s strong condemnation of slavery, I hoped to encounter displays throughout the exhibit that looked at the reasons behind slavery and race relations in the United States instead of information solely focused on numbers and the timeline of slavery. Learning and understanding the history of slavery and race in the United States is much more than just knowing how many Africans were forcibly stolen from their native land, when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed into law, or that the Underground Railroad existed. I believe that learning these aspects of the history of slavery and race in the United States is an important first step in understanding the reasoning behind why, as the “Memorial” says, “The struggle for freedom and political, social, and economic equality continued even after the legal ending of slavery. The devastating effects of slavery continue to affect race relations to this day.” But by not offering more than a surface deep analysis of slavery and race, the Liberty Bell Center is reduced to presenting a number of fun facts on the way to see a centuries old Bell. Rather than being a source of forward progress and deep introspection, the exhibition chooses to play it safe and act as little more than a reinforcement for the very systems that allowed such violence to take place in the first place.

Yet, we have made progress, albeit not the monumental strides some claim we have made. The bulk of the guidebooks I read this summer were written and published at a time when Jim Crow laws were in effect throughout most of the country. Black Americans were ignored as an audience by the majority of published guidebooks as well as the government at the local, state, and federal levels. When the black community had the attention of the United States government, at any level, it was because they aimed to further reduce the rights and livelihoods of members of the black community. We may have moved past the days of blatant Jim Crow discrimination, but racism and white supremacy continue to form the basis of our government’s, and many American’s, daily decisions. It should also be noted that we have not left the fight for historical honesty behind us; a quick walk around the city will demonstrate what I mean. In Philadelphia there is a monument to “charismatic leader” Christopher Columbus whose “discovery” marked the beginning of an era of rape and genocide for Indigenous communities that has lasted centuries. Philadelphia proudly commemorates Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo with a statue and a mural, but his time in power was remarkable only for the constant terror he enacted on the black and gay communities of Philadelphia during the 1960s and 1970s. The Liberty Bell Center extols the virtues of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which not only authorized slavery when the nation was founded, but also continues to authorize slavery today, so long as one has been convicted of a crime. These tributes serve as tacit approval of their honoree’s role in upholding systems of white supremacy and tell anyyone who bothers to look that we are proud of our history of white supremacy rooted in racism and xenophobia.

Despite claims to the contrary by some who wish to return to a period of national consensus so that America can be made great again, Philadelphia and the United States has never experienced a period of mass agreement  We can not return to a period in the past that never existed as American history always has been and continues to be a constant struggle to expand the notion of liberty to all people. This is why what we choose to revere and remember matters. This is why a statue is more than just a statue and the words on a sign are more than just a string of random words. They tell us, as a country, who we respect and whose views we align with. And while some people may continue to try to sweep racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy under the rug, these objects and ideas will always be evident in our public policy and public discourse to anyone who bothers to look. Some Americans may have moved from outright racism to coded language, but the damage is just as real now as it was centuries ago, regardless of how well one hides their intolerance. 

This is why I find the conscious choice to divorce the United States’ Founding Fathers and founding documents from their steadfast belief in white supremacy and racism as a form of governance so concerning. It does not matter where this shallow analysis of American history is to be found, be it in decades old guidebooks or in modern day exhibits and monuments, it has left many with little more than a collection of fun facts about the history of Philadelphia and the United States of America. And while fun facts are great to make oneself appear interesting in a conversation, they are of little significance if we do not understand how the fun fact plays into our historical legacy. Many Americans may only be left with an assortment of fun facts, but others find reinforcement for their ideas of hate and intolerance. This means that until we confront our historical legacy head-on and with honesty we will continue to put the most marginalized individuals of our society directly in harms way. This is unforgivable. Our cowardice to be honest about our history has real world consequences as seen through the murder that took place in Charlottesville less than two weeks ago or through the domestic terrorism committed by a white man in the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston two years ago. If we truly believe in expanding the notion of liberty to all people then it’s high-time we become honest about what the United States’s historical legacy of white supremacy and work to change it.

2 thoughts on “It Is Time to Be Honest About Our Historical Legacy

  1. Nate, this is a great post. I’m going to share it with a few folks (especially the folks at Elfreth’s Alley, who are always looking for student volunteers, BTW).
    The core of your critique here is right on target. The President’s House site and the memorial to slavery were hard fought changes in the development of the Liberty Bell Center (you can read about them in Gary Nash’s chapter “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Cooperation” and Jill Ogline Titus’s “Creating Dissonance for the Visitor”: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy”). City residents really pulled through to make enough noise that slavery was officially included in the National Parks narrative in a substantial way–it was really a first for the Parks and the City. Almost 15 years out, maybe it’s time to revist the message, especially at the Center. Thanks for another great post.

    1. I’ll definitely have to read more about the fight around the development of the Liberty Bell Center so thank you for the reading suggestions. I can imagine it was quite the battle to include the changes on display, especially with it occurring almost 15 years ago.

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