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Excerpt from: Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past

by Steven Conn
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006

Chapter 2: "The Ghosts that Haunt Us", pp. 111-14

It does not overstate it to say that until the beginning of the twentieth century, Philadelphia's was the largest, most influential, most accomplished black community of any of the nation's cities. Indeed, in 1830, African American made up nearly 10 percent of the city's entire population. Still, despite the centrality of Philadelphia to the development of black America, the connection between the African American experience and the "birthplace of freedom" is complicated to say the least. The national shrines of the nation's birth stand also as reminders that not all people were believed to be created equal in eighteenth-century America and that the promises made in those documents remain in many ways unfulfilled. For many people, the largely celebratory story told at these shrines glared with omission.

That changed in January of 2002.

In the January 2002 issue of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's scholarly journal Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the local historian Edward Lawler published an article on George Washington's Executive Mansion — the first White House. The building itself was razed in 1832, leaving only the most inexact sense of its location and plan. Lawler, in a historian-as-sleuth role, demonstrated definitively where it had been and, even more dramatically, where President Washington housed the slaves he brought with him from Virginia.

All of this would have made Lawler something of a hero in the small, dusty world of professional historians. But what thrust Lawler into the bright lights of a larger public was his final conclusion: part of the mansion lay underneath the new Liberty Bell building, then under construction, and visitors to it would walk directly over the slave quarters to enter the building devoted to the Liberty Bell. History proves, once again, to be far more ironic than any fiction.

Lawler's article, appearing as it did while the site itself was in such flux, prompted a group of historians (who somewhat unimaginatively called themselves the Ad Hoc Historians) to lobby the Park Service to include slavery in some meaningful way as part of the new bell building. As Randall Miller, one of the Ad Hoc Historians, told the New York Times, "This was an opportunity to get people interested in the contested nature of freedom."

But whereas historians and others were genuinely excited about the pedagogical possibilities, the National Park Service was less enthusiastic. It waffled, it avoided, it hoped the issue would go away. Officials met with the historians in May of 2002 and promised to consider changes to the exhibit plans. A year later, INHP Superintendent Mary Bomar had retreated to a position that questioned whether we really knew that the slave quarters extension to the building had been built. But by late 2003 the Park Service seemed to favor some sort of tracing to mark the outline of the Executive Mansion but without anything to outline the slave quarters, a position Ed Lawler called "deceptive and intellectually dishonest."

Meanwhile, a group somewhat more imaginatively named the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition began to pressure the Park Service to incorporate the slave quarters into a reconfigured site and to use some space nearby for a national memorial to slaves and slavery. They gathered signatures on petitions and held street demonstrations while the Ad Hoc Historians were banging away inside meeting rooms.

We know that Washington brought at least eight and perhaps more slaves to Philadelphia. We also know that Washington worried a great deal about doing so, believing that once in the city they might run away. It turns out that his anxieties were well founded. Among those who lived with the Washingtons was Oney Judge. The city, and her friends among Philadelphia's free black community, filled her with what she later called a "thirst for compleat freedom," and she escaped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1796. The Washingtons were furious and sent agents to pursue and recapture her. They failed. Still fuming about this insolent young woman, who fled, as Washington believed, "without the least provocation," the Washingtons were preparing to return to Mount Vernon when their cook Hercules ran away too. In 1791 Washington had written to Tobias Lear that "the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation to resist." It was and is.

Washington's slaves escaped while living at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia, but their personal act of liberation and defiance, like so much of the region's history, rings with national significance. The nation comes to Philadelphia to visit the monuments associated with freedom and liberty, and it is hard to imagine a more effective and dramatic way to talk about those precious things than to tell the story of Washington and his slaves. Nor can I imagine a better backdrop to talk about the relationship between past and present. If this can happen in an honest way at Independence National Historical Park, then African Americans too will take their proper place on the stage set of our national intentions.

Slavery may well be the ghost that haunts this nation more than any other. Perhaps at Independence Mall in Philadelphia we will be able to confront it.

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