ABOVE PHOTO: Even the bitter cold didn’t stop Philadelphians from witnessing the President’s House historic ceremony last Wednesday. Attorney/Civil Rights activist Michael Coard, who lead the way for a balanced exhibit telling the stories of the slaves owned by US president George Washington spoke proudly at the podium about this being, ‘a giant cultural leap for mankind and womankind, for black and for white.’ Coard, Cynthia MacLeod of Independence National Historical Park and Mayor Nutter poses for photos at the exhibit.
Photos by Bill Z. Foster
A new outdoor exhibit is open in Philadelphia’s historic district after years of protests, research and debate about how to balance the stories of the nation’s battle for independence with its history of slavery.
“President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation” is a permanent installation unveiled Wednesday on the footprint of the home and executive mansion of Presidents George Washington and John Adams when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800.
At least nine of Washington’s slaves also lived at the President’s House, which was demolished in the 1830s.
The site is steps from Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers declared that “all men are created equal,” as well as the Liberty Bell, a powerful symbol of the 19th Century abolitionist movement.
“This is where the dialogue begins,” Mayor Michael Nutter told several hundred people who braved the bitter cold to attend the dedication. “This is where the conversation of this contradiction must start.”
A plan to revamp Independence Mall and move the Liberty Bell to a new building set the exhibit in motion. There was an outcry among some historians and African American organizations after it was revealed in 2002 that the entrance to the Liberty Bell’s new home would be located only a few feet from where Washington’s slave quarters once stood.
In 2002, Congress directed the National Park Service to build a monument commemorating Washington’s slaves. The project was delayed for multiple revisions as officials and scholars discussed how to proceed with the dueling messages.
“I am known by some as the angriest black man in America,” said Michael Coard, an activist and attorney who led the charge for the slave memorial, joked with the crowd. “Today I am not angry. Today I am very happy.”
He called the completed President’s House site “a giant cultural leap for mankind and womankind, for black and for white.”
An enclosure built on the open-air site shows visitors parts of the house that were excavated in 2007 and artifacts found there. It also includes video vignettes and biographies of the men, women and children Washington kept as slaves there from 1790 to 1797. (Adams, who never owned slaves, moved in 1800 into the newly constructed President’s House, known today as the White House.)
The most detailed story is that of 17-year-old Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s personal assistant, who escaped from the President’s House in 1796 after learning she was to be given as a wedding gift to the first lady’s granddaughter.
A slave named Hercules, Washington’s cook, also escaped after being returned to Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. He was removed from the President’s House to avoid gaining his freedom under a law that ordered the release of enslaved Africans in Pennsylvania for more than six months.
Historians examining diaries and documents related to the project unearthed new details about the slaves, and more new information is likely to be added as the research continues, said Jane Cowley of Independence National Historical Park.
The city managed the design and construction since 2005. Now that the $12 million project is complete, the National Park Service will assume management of the site.