City to hail activist who refused to let slaves' history stay buried

Posted: May 24, 2007

Michael Coard, trial lawyer, hip-hop aficionado, amateur historian, and sometime talk-show host, must be one of the city's most elegant activists.

From calfskin slip-ons and Italian suits to his tightly woven hairstyle, Coard is everything that frumpy is not.

But this is a man who does not shy away from mixing it up if the issue is worth fighting for.

Today at 10 a.m., City Council is scheduled to issue a resolution honoring Coard, 42, and the organization he brought together - the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) - for the long campaign leading to public commemoration of George Washington's slaves.

Since the spring of 2002, Coard has worked to compel Independence National Historical Park to acknowledge that nine slaves toiled at the site of the President's House, Sixth and Market Streets, where Washington and his successor, the antislavery John Adams, created the American presidency in the 1790s.

At first, park officials had no intention of noting the house, demolished in 1832, beyond, perhaps, a plaque. And there were certainly no plans to highlight anyone who lived there, least of all the slaves.

But Coard, who teaches a criminal-law class and a course in hip-hop culture at Temple University, began a letter-writing campaign and a petition drive demanding, as he likes to put it, "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" from the National Park Service.

The letter campaign evolved into ATAC, which organized an initial demonstration July 3, 2002, at the site. More than 500 people turned out, demanding that the Park Service acknowledge Washington's Philadelphia slaves: Hercules, Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels and Joe.

It was the first of many such demonstrations.

Now Independence Park and the city have come together in support of a memorial to the house and its slaves, and an archaeological excavation at the site has uncovered unexpected remnants of presidential power and chattel slavery, sparking a surge in public interest. (An observation platform is open at the site.)

"Michael is a very centered, strong moral force, and very, very organized," said independent historian Edward Lawler Jr., whose scholarly work first brought attention to the President's House and its occupants.

"He has kept ATAC organized, and their continued pushing on individuals and on political figures and their public demonstrations have kept [the issue] in the public eye."

Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco, who sponsored the resolution, said, "We wanted to recognize him for being so tenacious and for leading the charge and getting recognition for our ancestors who lived there."

Coard grew up in East Germantown, led many a student demonstration at Cheyney University, and went on to law school at Ohio State University, where he fought successfully against university investments tied to apartheid South Africa.

Even he is a bit surprised by the powerful public interest in the President's House excavation. His mother, Irene Coard, visits the sight several times a week, keeping him up to speed on findings.

"This was not something I wanted to get all the credit for - the glory goes to the ancestors," he said the other day. "I've got to tell you, as corny as it sounds, I really believe that. I really believe that I was just fortunate enough to stay through whatever, that I just happened to be the guy who did well in school, went to college, went to law school, and remembered where my people came from."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or

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