Finally, Independence Park contacted Coard to invite ATAC to the table. An archaeological dig was conducted, which uncovered unexpected effects, including dishes and coins. ATAC solicited proposals for memorials, but the site has drawn such interest as it is, and visitors find it so evocative, that for now the pit will remain open and bare, a testament to the foundation of what was, the bits of brick, the floor where the slaves’ feet stepped.
It was a remarkable feat: The legacy of the nation’s first White House will forever be colored by the legacy of the blacks who were enslaved there.
The murder of 23-year-old Tyrone Hill never made the papers. There was no story of a “life cut down,” of “a future denied,” of “dreams unfulfilled.” Nor was there even a brief mention in print or on TV of the trial of his alleged killer, Troy Headen, or Headen’s ultimate acquittal. (He has fled the city and is living in hiding for fear of near-certain retaliation.)
And therein lies the seeming paradox between Coard’s activism and his job — helping to release black men back into a community suffering an epidemic of what those men were accused of. According to Jerry Mondesire, the inconsistencies come with the territory: “When you look back on the history of the civil rights struggle, most of the attorneys who made significant improvements in our society also had a dark side.” But Coard sees no duality, feels no internal conflict. Instead, he compartmentalizes. The possibility that he could be contributing directly to the murder epidemic by working to release some defendants who are guilty amounts to unfortunate but necessary collateral damage. “I often represent real bad guys who do real bad things, no doubt about it,” he says. “The way I go to sleep at night and look at myself in the mirror in the morning is, it’s never about my client. It’s always about the government. It’s always about keeping the greater threat in check.”
Paradox and contradiction, history is clear, are part of every man, maybe even more so every great man. For proof, one need look no further than George Washington, the revered father of our nation, who claimed to morally despise slavery but nonetheless transported his slaves from Philadelphia over state lines and back again every few months to circumvent Pennsylvania emancipation laws. Upon saying goodbye to the presidency and the President’s House at 6th and Market, he left with his slaves in tow, to join the 300 more he maintained back at Mount Vernon. And to his dying day, he pursued, from Virginia, the reacquisition of a favorite slave of his wife’s who’d escaped from Philadelphia to the freedom of New Hampshire.
Standing overlooking the ground where his forefathers once toiled, the springtime air filled with equal parts pollen and irony, Michael Coard declares that history can rightly remember George Washington as a great president, a great general, but never a great human being. “In history, as in law,” he says, “you have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
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