I never made it to the excavation of the spot on Independence Mall in Philadelphia a couple years ago where the first president had a home back in the 18th century.
As a newspaper online editor at the time, I dispatched two interns to the site pretty often to get video footage of the progress of the work and to do interviews. The excavation was immensely popular. More than 300,000 people showed up that summer of 2007 to watch, to engage in debate, to learn – and maybe not to learn.
This site was sacred ground for many — either because it was the temporary “White House” where two presidents lived as the real one was being built or where the slaves of one of them were kept in bondage and toiled for free. It was here — near what is now the home of the Liberty Bell — that Washington housed nine slaves.
On Wednesday, the story of Washington’s slaves will be told as part of an exhibit of the President’s House, a project that over the past decade spurred much debate, controversy and enmity. It’s truth-be-told-history about a president who was a slaveholder — not something to be proud of but also not something to hide. He was a typical man of his day, except for being the leader of the United States.
Eight years after the project started, the exhibit — called “President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation” — will open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication. My local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, which covered every demonstration and fiery meeting and press conference, wrote about the upcoming event in Sunday’s paper.
This new display not only encompasses the house at Sixth and Market Streets where Washington and President John Adams lived (it was the official residence from 1790-1800), but it also recounts the lives of Washington’s slaves. The nine – Oney Judge, Christopher Sheels, Joe, Giles, Hercules, Paris, Moll, Richmond and Austin – are commemorated in a glass/wood/steel enclosure near the entrance to the Liberty Bell. Adams had no slaves.
Judge, the personal servant of Martha Washington, escaped from the couple in 1796 “while they were eating dinner.” After learning that she was in New Hampshire, Washington sent officials to force her to come back. It didn’t work and she lived out her years as a free woman until she died in 1848. She was interviewed twice by newspapers in the 1840s.
The president’s chef, Hercules, left a year later and disappeared into a new life. (Hercules is in the photo below at right.) In all, Washington had more than 300 enslaved people, most of whom were on his plantation in Mount Vernon, VA.
How these nine people took their rightful place in the telling of the story of the President’s House goes back to 2002 when Independence Park was building a new home for the Liberty Bell. A local historian wrote about how visitors to the site would be walking over the place where Washington held slaves. That aroused an outcry, and Independence Park was forced to revamp its plan. An evacuation of the site came some years later.
Now, Oney, Hercules and the others are finally out of the kitchen and sitting at the big table.