Jane Johnson: 26 Days and Counting

We’ve often heard the cry for sites and stories “beyond the bell.”  What folks mean, of course, is beyond the Liberty Bell, the long overexposed icon of freedom synonymous with Philadelphia.  Well, there’s a set of very compelling stories that start, literally, at the doorstep of the Bell Pavilion and then lead around the state and across the nation.

It’s a poetic parallel: the images of a flawed bell (boasting to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”) and breaking the chains of slavery.  And this week, those two related notions of rent metal converged more than ever as tourism folks kicked off Quest for Freedom.  Lenwood Sloan, Pennsylvania’s Director of Cultural Heritage Tourism noted at the press conference that next New Year’s Day marks the 200th anniversary of the end of American importation of slaves.  And in his comments, Joe Torsella, head of the National Consitution Center, reminded the audience that the story of freedom and unfreedom is unfolding daily in archeological research at the site of the President’s House, near the Liberty Bell. 

This ironic, site-specific push and pull between freedom and unfreedom in Philadelphia is a wonderful gift.  Why? Because about now, as no other time in our nation’s history, we’re ready for large, healthy doses of complexity and contradiction.  Judging from the public reaction, we’re not only ready, we’re hungry for it.

They are here to stay, and to stay entangled, these conflicting images and ideas.  And over time, our quest (and the Quest for Freedom) will have to expand to embrace many more sites and stories, including (certainly) slavery at the President’s House – which is getting better known – and the story of Jane Johnson – which still barely registers.  

Stay with us at the Sixth Square during the next 26 days, when we’ll celebrate the 152nd anniversary of the day Jane Johnson seized her freedom.  We think it’s a heck of a Philadelphia story, and one that enriches and enlivens that of the Liberty Bell.

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