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The other side of liberty

At the very moment they were in Philadelphia declaring that all men are created equal, many of America's Founding Fathers were slave owners. Activists are now demanding a fuller accounting at democracy's birthplace.

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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 activists.

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 years.

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.


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