Can dirt be holy?
Is there such a thing as “sacred soil”?
If you’re religious about physical things, I guess dirt as well as locations can be considered sacred. Certainly, a good argument can be made that important graveyards, or places where large numbers of people died — such as Auschwitz or Gettysburg — are worthy of a certain kind of reverence. Whether that makes the dirt itself holy is another question.
When I was on the Berkeley Police Review Commission, People’s Park activists used to scream that the park was “sacred ground,” and they meant it.
Here in Philadelphia, local activists (in an ongoing effort I have blogged about repeatedly) have pressured officials from the notoriously guilty Bush regime into creating a holy place out of the buried ruins of the first presidential mansion. Not because George Washington lived there, but because he kept his slaves there. It is believed that slavery needs to move from being an unfortunate reality at the time of the founding to being a central feature.
My own view of this is that the most important feature was the development of the idea of freedom itself, manifested in the break with England, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. That many of the founders were themselves flawed, that they did not live up to the principles they enshrined, well, that is certainly an important part of history, as well as a feature of man. One of the founding’s contradictions is that the founders’ ideas were incompatible with slavery, even though slavery — and slaves — accompanied many (not all) of the founders.
However, to say that the country was “founded on slavery” because there were slaveholding founders is at least as much a mistake as saying that the country was “founded on Christianity” or “founded on the Ten Commandments” because many of the founders were devoutly religious. George Washington used to have insubordinate soldiers flogged; does that mean the country was founded on flogging?
But logic be damned; according to the law of identity politics, it is very important that people have “their own narrative,” so slavery has to become a central feature of the founding. The first thing Philadelphia tourists ought to see is the sacred soil where slaves once walked.

…black enslavement at the nation’s birth and in its birthplace has taken its place as a painful, essential topic of discussion and commemoration. In 2010, a memorial to the President’s House and its enslaved occupants is to open right outside the front door of the Liberty Bell Center.
This change is a monumental revision of America’s founding mythology, historians argue – one that has not diminished the sanctity of sacred ground but magnified it.
“The whole concept of sacred ground and the creation of sacred space has been extended by what’s happened,” said Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph’s University, who has pressed Independence Park officials to address the issues raised by the site.
“We’re not just looking for history. We’re not just looking for information on free blacks or slavery. We’re going deep into discovering ourselves as a nation.”

In this case, going deep means peering into a sacred hole:

In the spring and summer of 2007, Philadelphia witnessed something unprecedented, as hundreds of thousands of people streamed across the city to look at a hole – an archaeological exploration of the house site at Sixth and Market Streets.
Washington’s slaves lived there when he was president and Philadelphia was the nation’s temporary capital in the 1790s. Though John Adams, his successor as president and occupant, opposed slavery and held no human property, the hole kept its redolence of the unspeakable, for some a wound exposing a painful past, for others a scooped-out vessel holding a culture’s complex secret self.

Such carefully chosen words. The hole kept its redolence of the unspeakable. Never mind that no one really knows who used the hole; it could have been traversed by everyone who occupied the place. It has earned a permanent stench of slavery, and for that it is sacred.
What’s in this hole? Foundations of a house which belonged to Robert Morris, and which was temporarily donated by him for the residential use of the first two presidents. Washington had slaves there, Adams did not. The house was eventually torn down. Hardly magical or mystical, unless you believe that the foundations of the house have deep and hidden meaning, and that the soil is “sacred”:

The excavation, done under the auspices of the National Park Service and the city, ignited imaginations and intense conversations as more than 300,000 visitors watched archaeologists expose the symbolic foundations of black slavery and governing white power in the literal foundations of the first U.S. executive mansion.
“Here, the powerful,” said one man, pointing to the uncovered granite footings of a great bow window designed by Washington and said to be the precursor of the oval rooms of the White House.
“Here, the powerless,” he continued, pointing to kitchen foundations a few feet away, all that remained of the world where Hercules, Washington’s chef, worked his culinary magic before escaping to freedom. Nearby the outlines of an underground passage linked the world of kitchen and the world of bow windows; those who passed between them did so invisibly.
From spring till August, when the foundations were temporarily re-covered to preserve them, visitors who crowded the viewing platform stood transfixed, looking down on America’s intertwined, parallel history of slavery and freedom.

Sorry, but I think they’re reading a bit much into the foundations of a house.
But the word “sacred” is used seven times, and the Inquirer is so caught up with the magical powers of the narrative that it is reported that when the archaeologists “exposed this sacred ground,” they were “releasing its power.” I kid you not:

When the excavation was completely open and the worlds of George and Martha Washington were revealed, so intimately interlaced with the worlds of Hercules and Oney Judge, Michael Coard ventured down, 15 feet below street level, to the area that had once been the kitchen.
He says he felt a power and a connection unlike any he had felt before in America.
“I’m down in the pit at Sixth and Market feeling the same physical, cultural and spiritual sensation standing there on that ground, where Hercules stood in the kitchen, that I felt when I touched the ground in Africa in 1996,” Coard said.
Archaeology exposed this sacred ground, releasing its power. And while the President’s House site has been the most dramatic example at Independence Park of archaeology’s potency, it is not the only one. Perhaps more than any other single activity undertaken at the park, archaeology has triggered the greatest change and precipitated the greatest renewed interest in America’s civic origins.

What amazed me was to read that in addition to the slaves, the house was actually occupied by Martha Washington and Abigail Adams! Something which park superintendent Cynthia MacLeod hopes might be worthy of historical notation.

“We are pleased now also to have the tangible connections to relate the stories of many individuals previously not as well represented, such as James Dexter, all the free and enslaved Africans at the President’s House including Oney Judge and Hercules, and, I hope, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams who also occupied the President’s House,” she said.

Well, I’d hate to be in Ms. MacLeod’s position, as her predecessors stand accused of resisting and balking in the face of something called the “power of the real.” Yes, holes are powerful — especially when they invoke racial narratives:

Nevertheless, more than once in recent years, the park and its partners resisted archaeological efforts, balking at the pursuit of what local historian Ed Lawler has called “the power of the real.”
Yet each time an excavation has been performed, it has uncovered something extraordinary – significant forgotten or unknown characters, the complexities of 18th-century life and previously hidden connections to 21st-century America, new history, new facts, all leading to heightened public interest.
It is not an exaggeration to call archaeology a key driver of the transformation of Independence Park, carrying it from the received traditional history of Founding Fathers and 20th-century veneration of their unassailability, to the complexities of the 21st century, where greatness is not denied but made more human.
“What we are looking at [through archaeology] are people telling their own story,” said St. Joseph’s historian Miller. “They’re not writing it down, but they’re doing it their own way and we have to go down and discover it.
“It’s not just sacred ground – it’s the realness of it that’s so powerful. It’s not reproduced. The African American story is there staring us in the face. Race is what defines us. There it is.”

That’s the real lesson.
It’s all about race.
Isn’t it nice to know that modern America can finally agree on something?
This is all so nonsensical to me that it’s hard to know what to say, and I’m barely resisting the temptation to violate Godwin’s Law. (But I do feel obliged to observe that the notion that defining people by race has a poor historical track record.)
Of course, if you’re one of those recalcitrant reactionaries who don’t believe race should define us, there’s a term for you. You’re guilty of “color-blind racism.”
In other words, if you don’t think race should define us, you’re a racist.
As to unbelievers in sacred ground, they’re probably guilty of an emergent form of blasphemy.