The fourth event in the Greater Philadelphia Roundtable “Phrasing Philadelphia” series began with welcoming remarks by Alison Young, vice president of public engagement at the National Constitution Center. Next, Charlene Mires, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, explained the Encyclopedia project as a gateway to digital information that would also create books, materials for teachers, for a greater understanding of the region and the city. The discussion and comments from this Roundtable series will help to shape the content of the Encyclopedia.
Mires introduced the facilitator for the program’s discussion, Richard Beeman of the University of Pennsylvania. The other panelists for the evening included Gary Nash of the University of California at Los Angeles; Michael Coard, a defense attorney and founding member of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition; and Richard Newman of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Beeman pointed out the feature exhibit at the National Constitution Center, Discovering the Real George Washington, and the opening of the President’s House exhibit across the street as wonderful opportunities to engage important issues about George Washington, the early republic, and competing ideas of liberty and slavery.
The first question asked Nash to speak about his essay, “The Cradle of Liberty,” which was published in the Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer on the Sunday before the program. From the time of the city’s founding to the present, what are the most important pieces of history in Philadelphia attached to the idea of the city as a cradle of liberty? What distinguishes Philadelphia’s history from that of other cities and towns?
Nash replied that Philadelphia shares some common history with other cities, as a great many cities follow a similar pattern: a visionary founding, a period of declension, waves of migrants and immigrants, possibly a time of industrial decline, and then a struggle to reinvent the city in an era of post-industrialization and globalization. He spoke about the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia and its Roundtable series as an “in-gathering” of local institutions, organizations, neighborhoods, and people, similar to a town meeting, where the process of coming together is as important as the end product.
Coard began his response with a metaphor: if liberty was born in Philadelphia, then liberty’s orphaned brother is slavery. He highlighted the buried history of the first presidential house in Philadelphia which was home not only to George and Martha Washington, but also to enslaved men, women, and children. Moreover, twelve of America’s first eighteen presidents owned human beings. These are pieces of the story of liberty, he argued, that absolutely must be told. One must remember that much of the toil that made the United States a great and powerful nation came off the backs of enslaved Africans. Yes, Coard agreed, America is a great country. He cited the fact that slavery existed for 246 years, from 1619 to 1865, on this continent. If you owned a company and did not have to pay employees for 246 years, you would have a great company. America is that company, he argued.
Then, Newman talked about themes that make Philadelphia a unique city, experiment, and vision–especially a dystopian vision. In many ways, Philadelphia was built around the institution of slavery and much of the city’s history is rooted in the story of emancipation. It was the first city in the Atlantic world where African Americans lived and breathed emancipation. From the 1780s through independence, after the Civil War, into the twentieth century, and to the present, Philadelphians have struggled with the conflicting racial ideas of freedom and suppression. Newman reminded the audience that they are sitting in the same room where presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered his famous speech on race in March 2008. He explained Philadelphia as a deliberative place, not defined by diatribes. From the crafting of the Constitution to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the city has proven itself as a center of debate and discussion that addresses race directly. Nash added that the notion of liberty of conscience has been part of the definition of Philadelphia since William Penn’s landing. Religious tolerance lived here for the first time in the Western world. He added that the Quakers commenced a legacy of peace, cooperation, and cohabitation that steered much of the early history of Philadelphia. Although the city may not hold strong to theses precedents of religious tolerance and pacifism, they distinguish Philadelphia as a true “cradle of liberty.”
Beeman returned to the persistent contradiction of notions of liberty and equality with those of racism, slavery, and inequality. As the nation placed liberty and equality at the top of its hierarchy of values, at least rhetorically, it created tension across the city, state, and nation. To what extent has Philadelphia made progress over the years to mitigate that contradiction? Newman commended Philadelphians for recognizing the inherent contradictions of liberty and inequality in the city which allows for concrete dialog and discussion. Quaker communities, abolition groups, and free blacks worked early on to bring attention to inequality in Philadelphia, a defining step towards solving a much larger problem. Coard said that Philadelphia has made tremendous strides towards addressing issues of inequality. He spoke about work of the Avenging the Ancestor Coalition (ATAC) to facilitate discussions about slavery at the President’s House site at 6th and Market Streets. While the city is certainly closer to equality than years ago, it is not close to completely resolving inequalities. He asked the audience, “If you had to be a defendant in a criminal case tomorrow and you had the choice to go in as a white defendant or a black defendant, which would you choose?” Coard argued that there exist privileges for whites that do not exist for blacks to this day. He cited the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the legislation that truly made blacks equal to whites under law. In looking at statistics today, blacks tend to be at the bottom of nearly every strata of society, Coard said. He reasoned that today’s discrimination is a direct result of yesterday’s slavery.
Though hardly living up to all the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, Beeman said, Philadelphia had come farther than any other place in the Western world in establishing a relatively peaceful, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society with impressive levels of economic growth. In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, the nation’s capital moved south, the financial system dispersed after the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, and the city largely failed to produce national political leaders. Is Philadelphia’s post-1800 history one of decline?
Nash declared Philadelphia as a lasting center of education and medicine, even after the city’s period of industrial decline. He predicted that history tourism will be one of the distinguishing marks of the city, drawing Americans as well as international visitors to its many museums, societies, parks, and attractions. Newman described colonial and early Philadelphia as the peak of the city’s strength, then a slow slide downwards to the 1860s. However, he said, one can define Philadelphia by movement. Global travel, immigration, steel railroads, and the Underground Railroad all define Philadelphia in the 19th century, suggesting growth rather than decline.
Coard called Philadelphia a “tourism mecca,” a place where many people visit or hope to visit to learn more about themselves. Spots like the President’s House address national, American issues to help visitors understand the history of the United States. Here, Philadelphia did it right, he said. On the way to creating racial equality, Nash said, the great problem of class inequality stands. When the graduated federal income tax was passed about 100 years ago, it was thought that extreme social and economic inequalities brought on by concentrations of wealth would lead to political concentrations of power and social disruptions. The growing, rather than shrinking, economic inequalities in our generation threaten democracy, Nash argued.
Newman addressed gender issues in terms of liberty. Philadelphia saw some of the earliest movements related to women’s rights in the 1830s and 1840s, with famous activists like Lucretia Mott. Even before the Civil War, there was a gendered struggle for equality and liberty. Newman spoke about Philadelphia abolitionist Richard Allen as one of the many eighteenth and nineteenth century reformers who force us to confront the idea that all types of people must learn to live together. Although this idea may not be fully realized today, these thinkers started the dialogue for a multi-cultural nation from the start.
With his last question of the evening, Beeman asked the panel to comment on the evolution of the political culture and political leadership of Philadelphia. In what ways has it helped the city to progress or to slow? Nash replied first with a reference to Jefferson’s idea of the turbulent sea of liberty and the impossibility of a placid democracy. “It is in the nature of a democracy to be contentious,” Nash stated, allowed for by the First Amendment. In some cases, the price of being democratic is paid in political polarization and crossfire. However, one is sure to recognize a democratic state by the different, sometimes conflicting, interpretations of history, rather than in an authoritative state where only one understanding of history may exist. Coard responded next by quoting Bill Green, former mayor of Philadelphia, when he dubbed Philadelphia’s city council as the worst legislative body in the history of the world. Politics and democracy, Coard explained, demand whatever it may take to get things right, yelling and screaming included. As a lawyer, he spoke about the complexities of the American legal system. He cited Thurgood Marshall and the AACP as defenders of the Constitution as a building block for democracy. Newman remarked that while many tend to look at those who have been left of out the democratic system, others have died to get in. As an example, he spoke about Philadelphian Octavius Catto who fought for the right to vote and was killed after the Civil War.
At this point in the program, Beeman invited audience members to pose questions to the panel. The first question asked the panel to consider the differences in the history of slavery in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, as the latter had many more slave owners than the former two. Nash responded that historians are still finding and interpreting new research and newfound documents about the history of slavery in America. The history of slavery in the North, especially, has become more central to the discourse and the understanding of American history as a whole in the last thirty years or so and there is still more to discover. Coard added that many Americans think of slavery as an issue that clearly divided the North and the South with Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. The true story of slavery in America is not told in its entirety. Again, the President’s house site in Philadelphia serves as a great example of the suppressed stories of enslaved men, women, and children that are just now becoming part of the popular narrative of the nation’s history. Educators and historians today are starting important discussions to bring the complete, sometimes suppressed, stories of our nation’s past to light.
Next, an audience member asked the panel to consider Philadelphia as a city which adopted and adapted ideas of liberty, freedom, and equality from elsewhere, then applied them, rather than generating these ideas independently. She argued that we should place Philadelphia in a larger, not just national, but regional context in history. Newman answered that the debate over freedom and emancipation developed into a global story by the end of the eighteenth century. As global empires struggled with the meaning of human bondage, Philadelphia grappled with the same questions. However, Newman argued, Philadelphia started to debate ideas of freedom in the 1770s and 1780s, before revolutions in Saint Domingo and the Caribbean world. Nash cited the American Philosophical Society as a connecting agent between Philadelphia and the rest of the world throughout global debates of liberty.
An audience member asked the panel to consider ways to increase tourism appreciation of lesser-known Philadelphia landmarks and historic sites, like the American Philosophical Society, which are sometimes shadowed by big-name sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Nash proposed that the academic community build strong connections with K-12 educators. Newman offered that the city should redefine fundamental narratives that characterize Philadelphia’s history to include both social and political events. Coard added that when people have a direct connection to events, they are more involved with the stories of the past and are more willing to engage in dialogue.
If Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois were alive today, asked an audience member, would he look around Philadelphia to see many of the same racial issues that existed decades ago, especially in regard to segregated communities and education? Coard simply answered yes. He explained that blacks have proportionately less whites in the city today, relative to the ways they lived 100 years ago. The economic gap and list of social inequalities are as egregious today as at the turn of the twentieth century. While blacks are better educated and own more property today, that success is dwarfed by the relative success of whites. Newman suggested that Du Bois’s urban sociology would study these problems where they exist–in homes, in schools, in backyards, in neighborhoods–to find the answers. Beeman argued that Du Bois would have been deeply disappointed in the growing gap between rich and poor and growing inequalities as the opposite of progress in Philadelphia.
The last question asked how William Penn’s original ideas of pacifism and tolerance have transitioned and evolved into a more muscular idea of liberty in Philadelphia. Penn would be quite disappointed, Nash imagined, that his City of Brotherly Love and his Holy Experiment grew into a nation that now fights wars around the world. Beeman cited Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech where he seriously grappled with the inherent contradictions of believing in peace and living in a violent world.