PHILADELPHIA — Nine slaves owned by George Washington will be honored Thursday, the day before Americans celebrate the nation's independence.
Event planners will use the occasion to tell the slaves' stories and to celebrate a permanent memorial for them that is to be built on the site of the nation's first presidential residence , a few yards from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
"For the first time in American history, there will be a monument to the contributions of enslaved Africans on federal property," said Michael Coard, an attorney who leads a group that worked to have slavery recognized at the site.
The President's House, as it is known, was demolished in the 1930s. Washington and John Adams lived in the building while they served as president between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital.
Talking about a presidential home where slaves lived and worked is especially important this year, because Americans have "a major contender for the White House that happens to be African American," said Rosalyn McPherson, project manager of the President's House.
The nine slaves Washington kept in Philadelphia were among hundreds that he owned; most of his slaves lived at his estate in Virginia. In his will, he arranged for them to be freed after the death of his wife.
In preparation for an interpretive display at the Philadelphia site, the National Park Service and the city embarked on an archaeological dig that revealed remnants of the home, including a hidden passageway likely used by slaves and an outline of a bow window that could be the architectural precursor to the Oval Office.
The findings were so impressive that plans for the President's House were changed to incorporate them. Architectural firm Kelly/Maiello is still working on the new design, McPherson said.
The changes raised the project's price tag to $7 million, $3 million more than the original estimate. McPherson said a fundraising campaign will begin in September.
"A lot of people probably think that we're still in the holding pattern. We're not," McPherson said. "This is the unsexy part of the project , working on the things that people cannot see."
In recent years, Philadelphia historical sites have included more slaves' stories into their tourist programs. Most recently, the Colonial-era Christ Church has begun explaining to visitors how slaves worshipped alongside parishioners like Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross.
Thursday's event honoring Washington's slaves is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. at 6th and Market streets.