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Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: December 1-7, 2005
Byline: Edward Lawler Jr., Independence Hall Association Historian

Letter:Slave Labor

I appreciate Bruce Schimmel's kind words [Loose Canon, "Thanks and No Thanks," Nov. 24, 2005] and his dogged efforts to spur some action on the President's House commemoration. Without him, the project might still be stuck in limbo.

There is someone else behind the scenes who is deserving of a big thank-you: Dwight Pitcaithley, the recently retired chief historian of the National Park Service. In an April 2002 letter to then Independence National Historical Park superintendent Martha Aikens, he urged that the true history of the site be embraced:

"The contradiction in the founding of the country between freedom and slavery becomes palpable when one actually crosses through a slave quarters site when entering a shrine to a major symbol of the abolition movement. How better to establish the proper historical context for understanding the Liberty Bell than by talking about the institution of slavery? And not the institution as generalized phenomenon, but as lived by George Washington's own slaves. We will have missed a real educational opportunity if we do not act on this possibility."

Despite Pitcaithley's persistent lobbying, INHP dragged its feet for another couple years. A plan was submitted to Congress in March 2003 that erased the slave quarters, but in December 2004, INHP finally agreed to mark them exactly as they are shown on a 1785 map of the property. The city, which is currently taking the lead role in the design process for the President's House site, requires that the slave quarters be appropriately marked and interpreted.

One small correction: We do know the names of all nine enslaved Africans in Washington's presidential household. Biographical sketches are posted on the Independence Hall Association Web site: www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/slaves/index.htm.

 

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