Justice: Coard v. Coard

He’s made it his mission to demand acknowledgement of the slaves who served George Washington even as he works to free young blacks accused of murder in the city’s epidemic of death. Meet the complicated Michael Coard, Esquire

AFTER A WEEK-LONG trial in which the prosecution called nearly a dozen witnesses, and Michael Coard, who’d grilled most of them during cross-examination, called only one, who attested to Troy Headen’s good and nonviolent reputation, the jurors in the case of Commonwealth v. Troy Headen — after receiving their instructions for deliberations from the judge — left the courtroom with their tiny notebooks in hand.

After less than three hours, they notified the judge they’d reached a unanimous verdict.

Back in the courtroom, the judge instructed Headen to rise.

The court officer reiterated the charge of first-degree murder against him. “How do you find the defendant?” the officer asked the jury foreperson.

“We find the defendant not guilty,” the foreperson answered.

MICHAEL COARD really does like to talk about his tombstone, about what accomplishments he wants listed on it when he dies. He is proud of his legal work. He is proud of the radio show he hosted for five years on WHAT (a show that prominent civil rights leader Jerry Mondesire called “quixotic” and likened to “a reverse 180 degrees from Rush Limbaugh”). He is proud of his work teaching courses to the community at large in criminal justice, and in his first and true love, hip-hop, at Temple. But what he’s proudest of is a huge open pit on the corner of 6th and Market.

“If I never do anything else in my life,” Coard said as we stood at the site recently, watching archaeologists use tiny brushes to gently clean small piles of crumbling bricks, “this will be enough.”

In 2001, Coard was reading the Inquirer when he stumbled upon a story about plans by the National Park Service to move the Liberty Bell to a new visitors center. The article stated that the new site was near where the President’s House had once stood — essentially the nation’s first White House, since George Washington and John Adams lived there during their presidencies. The house had been torn down in the early 19th century.

Coard is an armchair historian, and his interest was piqued. He began to research the President’s House, and what he found shocked him. Not only had Washington lived in the house; so had his nine slaves: Hercules, Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels and Joe. The National Park Service had no plans to formally acknowledge the house, let alone the slaves. Historians had determined that the slave quarters stood a mere five feet from the entrance to the new Liberty Bell center. Coard was incensed. For him, the symbolism was devastating: “That was the height of historical hypocrisy, that as you enter this heaven of liberty, you literally have to cross this hell of slavery.”

Coard embarked on what would become a years-long struggle to have the slaves first acknowledged, then honored. He enlisted the help of his students at Temple, who conducted a letter-writing campaign to the Park Service. He formed an action committee, the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC). He rallied politicians. He charged his radio listeners to get involved. On July 3, 2002, he held Black Independence Day, with hundreds of protestors turning out to rally for the slaves to be recognized.