On December 15, a bright and bitterly cold day in the city that served as the nation’s capital from 1790-1800, the City of Philadelphia and Mayor Michael Nutter officially transferred management of a new $12 million exhibit located next to the Liberty Bell — The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation. The commemorative site, a decade in the making marked by both controversy and collaboration, will now be managed by Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, one of the National Park Service’s premier parks.
Four high school students from the School District of Philadelphia attended the opening ceremonies. Guided by Alberto Romero, an English teacher at Constitution High School, and Bruce Shimmel from the The City Paper, the following is their story about the day.
President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation
Although it has been a long process, we are here today on December 15, 2010 with two seniors from Constitution High School and two sophomores from Masterman High School who have been following this story closely, as this subject has been fodder for numerous classroom research projects and has been the theme of several National History Day projects. We are gathered here to record the stories, emotions, and reactions of the people in attendance at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation.
“Last night I had a nightmare that I would wake up this morning and it would all have been a dream. But I woke up this morning to find that my fears were unfounded and that this day is finally here,” Michael Coard, founder of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, ATAC, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Until 2001, the ground at the corner of sixth and Market looked like an empty lot. Today it resembles the frail structure of a skeleton house. This ghost house has hidden a secret since America’s founding. When Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, from 1790-1800, here stood the President’s House. During this time President George Washington and John Adams lived there. But the real secret is that during President Washington’s term he and his wife Martha owned nine slaves, whom they brought from Mount Vernon, Virginia.
For years, park officials attempted to sweep the slave matter under the rug and pretend that it never happened. That is, until a group of people led by Michael Coard lobbied strongly to have this truth revealed to the American people in the form of a slavery memorial.
Upon our arrival at the event we noticed a large variety of people. Before speakers came to the podium, including Mayor Michael Nutter and ATAC founder Michael Coard, the spectators sat and waited restlessly in the freezing weather. Once the speakers were all finished with their wonderful orations, we began to interact with the myriad people in the crowd. We spoke with many interesting people, some wearing fancy hats, colorful scarves, traditional African clothing, and even holding Afrocentric, Marcus Garvey flags. The people gave us a glimpse into their personal view as to what this memorial actually meant to them. Although some were more excited by the memorial than others, the different perceptions painted a picture as to what the future holds for the sharing of the history of slavery.
Robert Morris, a descendant of one of the original owners, also named Robert Morris, who was himself a slave owner and financier was one of the many people whom we sparked up a conversation with. Mr. Morris felt that it was important for him to attend the ceremony. He believes that the original Philadelphia White House should be recognized, since this seems to be missing from many history books. However, he had some mixed emotions about the memorial. Robert Morris believes that the memorial, instead of focusing on the presidency has focused on what he calls, “a painful memory of slavery that everyone already knows about. It’s sad, really.”
One face full of pride in the crowd was Denise Valentine, an ATAC member. Besides supporting her coalition, Ms. Valentine attended the ribbon cutting ceremony because she believes that today is a significant historical event. This day not only affects her relationship with her ancestors but also her children and grandchildren. It represents the story of people who have not been heard from before. We asked her what she would tell her children and grandchildren about this day; she had a unique response. “It’s funny that you should ask about children because I am a storyteller. I go all over to elementary schools and I tell children the stories of the black experience,” Valentine said. She promises that she will tell all of her children this story so that the younger generation would know about the history that was made here today.
Oney Judge, Hercules, Austin, Richmond, Moll, Paris, Giles, Joe, and Christopher Sheels — These names will now remain etched not only in stone, but in the collective consciousness of all Philadelphians.
Acknowledgments: Doug Heller, founder and editor of USHistory.org, Andrea Reidell, education specialist from the National Archives office in Philadelphia, Alberto Romero, English teacher at Constitution High School, Bruce Shimmel from The City Paper, Karl Bortnick, an information technology consultant, and Judy Miller, editor of Britannica’s Student News Net. For additional information, please contact Judy Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.