Early last week, historian Edward Lawler Jr. made an interesting announcement: While it is already known that President George Washington harbored eight slaves at his Philadelphia White House, Lawler came upon a letter written by the first president indicating that another black slave was also part of his entourage.
"In April, I made the discovery of a ninth enslaved African named Postilion Joe," Lawler says, "so I went down to Mount Vernon and the head researcher there confirmed it."
Lawler says that he made the finding in a 1795 letter written by Washington to William Pearce, the overseer of Washington's 8,000-acre plantation in Virginia. For seven years, Lawler has methodically researched the history of the President's House, which once stood on the site where the Liberty Bell Center stands now. He says the letter shows that an African named Joe Richardson was a footman for the presidential coach, as well as a stable groom.
The news became the centerpiece of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition's (ATAC) annual Black Independence Day rally, held on Saturday directly across from the Liberty Bell. For the past three years, members of ATAC have gathered on July 3 to protest the lack of acknowledgment given to the former property of one of America's most famous founding fathers and to insist that Independence National Historic Park remedy the slight.
"This is the worst type of historical hypocrisy," says Michael Coard, an ATAC organizer. "It's taken so long to acknowledge these enslaved Africans because of the embarrassment that America feels about slavery. But we have three demands for the Independence National Historic Park. We want a physical manifestation, perhaps something like a waterfall; a verbal manifestation, like an explanation from the park ranger when giving tours and a footprint marking. We want people who visit this site to know they're crossing over hallowed ground from the hell of slavery to the heart of liberty."
Phil Sheridan, INHP spokesman, says that the organization is looking to raise a total of $4.5 million to erect a proper memorial. In October, Mayor Street pledged $1.5 million.
"It's not going to be just a marker," Sheridan says. "There are a lot of important stories to tell, including stories about what went on at the President's House and the fact that it was a place where people were enslaved."
Sheridan says that beginning this month, a slide lecture will be offered at the Liberty Bell Center specifically to discuss the President's House.
"But it's not only about enslavement," he says. "A lot of very important decisions were made there as this country was being born even though they're full of strange ironies and inconsistencies."