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Programs for the Topic ‘U.S. Constitution’

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Collective Memory: How the Present Shapes the Past Told through a Philadelphia Story About George Washington and Slavery

Marc Howard Ross, Ph.D., William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor, Department of Political Science, Bryn Mawr College

Wednesday March 2, 2011, 4:30-5:30 p.m.

Sponored by the Louis C. Greenwood Lecture – CISCDR Distinguished Interdisciplinary Lecture, presented by the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Conflict & Dispute Resolution at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Collective memory is increasingly discussed as an important feature of large group behavior. Prof. Ross will outline conceptual tools for the analysis of collective memory and how present needs shape what is told and retained about the past: narratives, symbols and rituals, and symbolic landscapes as well as an empirically useful way to understand collective memory and its role in ethnic and racial conflict and conflict mitigation. To illustrate the approach, he will consider the case of race in the United States and especially the phenomenon of slavery in both the north and the south. He will emphasize the role of selective forgetting in the north and how only in recent years has the story of slavery and segregation there been publicly considered.

The specific conflict he will describe and analyze has gone on for the past nine years in Philadelphia concerning George Washington and the nine enslaved Africans who lived in the President’s House in the city from 1790-1797. The house that was torn down in the 1830’s was a block away from Independence Hall—where the national narrative of freedom and liberty is celebrated, and the former slave quarters is almost directly under the present entrance to the Liberty Bell Pavilion where the bell is housed. Unlike the simple story that was told in Independence Hall National Park, we should ask how can this complex braided history of freedom and slavery that not only is found on this site but throughout the country in its first 77 years be told together?

In Philadelphia, there have been contentious debates, strong disagreements and complicated and painful discussions about Washington, slavery in the north, and the nine enslaved individuals—two of whom escaped to freedom. These debates reveal a good deal about what is, and is not, included in collective narratives, how selective narratives are remembered or forgotten, and reinforced or discouraged. The story of this conflict offers a challenge to law and society and shows the power of collective memories unleashing and resolving long-standing, deep cultural conflicts.

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