George Washington and his slaves slept on Independence Mall. It's time to tell the whole tale.
Ed Lawler is a friendly guy, easy with a big belly laugh. But after waging war against the National Park Service, he can manage only a weak smile. "I just want them to tell the truth about this place," says the noted historian.
This place is Independence Mall. From the north side of Market Street, Lawler and I watch tourists on the other side of the street streaming from the makeshift security pavilion to the entrance of the new Liberty Bell Pavilion. "They have no idea what they're walking over," says Lawler.
The tourists are strolling over an unmarked 10-by-10-foot square a few steps north of the pavilion's door. This is where George Washington kept slaves after he took up residence at the young nation's executive mansion at Sixth and Market streets. In 1997, Lawler was stunned to discover that Washington built sleeping quarters there for the three slaves who tended his nearby stables. (For Lawler's maps and narratives, visit www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse.)
Lawler made the discovery well before the Park Service broke ground for the pavilion. But planners ignored Lawler's research in the designs for both the Liberty Bell Pavilion and the President's House commemoration, which is still to be built at Sixth and Market.
Now that other historians are lauding Lawler, the Park Service has started to include his research. Still, it continues to obscure the whole tale of Washington's slavish ways.
That's what Michael Coard is squawking through a bullhorn nearby at a crowd of about 75 that met to protest the Park Service's omissions. The crowd — with many older black women wearing colorful dashikis — whoops loudly when Coard points toward Lawler, crediting him for discovering the truth. Hearing the cheers, the white historian's sad little smile broadens into a toothy grin.
Coard is the other half of the duo that put a sharp stick to the Park Service's behind. After he learned of Lawler's research, Coard organized the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) to demand that the Park Service "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." A young African-American criminal defense lawyer, Coard has a penchant for monogrammed cuffs and designer glasses, and a knack for killer one-liners.
"You must pass through the hell of slavery in order to enter the heaven of liberty," Coard tells the assembled, as the tourists on the other side walk over the former slave quarters on their way to the Liberty Bell. Separated by Market Street, two security fences and five armed Park Service officers, the tourists can't hear a word of what ATAC is trying to tell them. It's a perfect emblem of how the Park Service still blocks historical facts from the public.
The facts are that Washington kept nine slaves where slavery had been outlawed. Using a loophole, the first president evaded the state statute by shuttling them between his Mount Vernon home and this house in Philadelphia. Known to be a tough taskmaster, Washington took pains to keep his slaves from escaping, which likely included locking up his stable slaves. Eventually two did escape: Washington's flamboyant chef, Hercules; and Oney Judge, Martha's maidservant, who managed to evade the Washingtons' relentless attempts to recapture her.
All of these slave stories are told on Lawler's site, and a couple have made their way into a recently published Park Service handout, which is provided to visitors on request.
But the Park Service has yet to make good on a critical promise made last year to both Lawler and Coard to erect interpretive signage at the slave quarters' former location, over which more than two million visitors walk yearly.
While the City of Philadelphia and the Park Service haggle over the final design of the $4.5 million President's House commemoration, there is no excuse for the Park Service to drag its feet over the truth. At the moment, the weathered signage announcing the President's House is incomplete and downright wrong. Instead of compelling stories and an accurate schematic that includes the slave quarters, we have instead pictures of Washington and John Adams, and a very dim image of Richard Allen — an African-American noted for founding the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen is an important figure, but he has absolutely no connection to the President's House.
Like most visitors on their way to the bell, the black rent-a-cops I spoke to recently, who stand guard daily over the place where slaves slept, had no idea about what once went on there. When I showed them Lawler's materials, they were fascinated; they want to know more. But they were also cynical. "Look at how the black man is practically invisible," said one, pointing at the sign, with its smudgy, fading image of Allen. "That's a symbol," he said.
Yeah, he got that right.