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Source: Cross Ties/Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities
Date: Fall 2007
Byline: Dr. Cheryl LaRoche

Public History at Sites of Protest: Citizenship on the President’s House Viewing Platform

After years of protest, archaeological investigations began in March 2007 on a portion of the President's House site on Philadelphia's Independence Mall. The dig lasted — thanks to relentless public pressure and interest — until the end of July. Archaeology exposed foundations for the kitchen where the enslaved chef, Hercules, labored and probably planned his successful escape, the bow window where George Washington and later John Adams stood in state, and a subterranean passageway used by those toiling in the kitchen to transport food to the State Dining Room, out of sight of visiting dignitaries and other official guests.

As the site emerged from obscurity, potent reactions and powerful debates emerged as well. Buried for decades under a public toilet, the site has become one of the most important new historic finds in the region, and one of the hottest places for public protest and citizen engagement. On a sturdy, utilitarian wooden viewing platform overlooking the dig site, archaeologists and other interpreters spent the summer engaged with a stream of impassioned, inquiring visitors gripped by the historical and moral significance of what emerged from the ground. Pointing out the foundations that survive and telling the story of what they represent has meant telling long-buried truth about the presidency, slavery and the formation of the nation.

In 1790, President George Washington and his wife, Martha Custis Washington, arrived in Philadelphia with eight of the nine enslaved Africans who would eventually toil at the nation's first executive mansion. Washington ordered that sleeping quarters be built for enslaved stable workers at a site now five feet from the front door of the Liberty Bell Center. Despite protests, construction of the Center went forward in 2003 without archaeological investigation of this slave quarters area. The fact that the story of American slavery was being buried beneath an international symbol of freedom galvanized an angry and insistent public. Protesters demanded a full excavation of the rest of the President's House site as part of a larger project to interpret and commemorate the unrecognized contributions of enslaved African captives.

Important African-American historical and archaeological sites frequently emerge only after lengthy public protest. At the African Burial Ground in New York City, for example, an insistent public quickly recognized and fought for the deep historical significance of the site against public officials inclined to dismiss or ignore it. Sonny Carson, one of the most forceful activists at the African Burial Ground, called for an insistent, persistent, resistant public. At the Philadelphia site, various informed, outraged, and committed community protest groups sustained years of pressure on the National Park Service and Independence National Historical Park without fragmenting or losing focus. These two sites of protest began with government malfeasance concerning African American history and developed despite reluctance to engage fully with the often painful and troublesome aspects of that history.

In addition to a mobilized and effective protest community, both cities also had African-American mayors — David Dinkins in New York and John F. Street in Philadelphia. The mayors offered crucial local government support, strengthening and validating community demands. New York Congressman Gus Savage, then chairman of the U. S. House Ways and Means committee, exerted his influence to close the African Burial Ground to further excavations, while at the President's House, U. S. Representatives Chaka Fattah and Robert Brady secured Federal support for interpretation.

Sites born in protest create unique working conditions for public history professionals. In both cities, the public grappled passionately with the deeper meaning of freedom and personal liberty in the face of slavery. In Philadelphia, months of public discussion and media attention deepened understandings of slavery. Many people realized for the first time that slavery had existed in the North, and in cities, not just on southern plantations. Proprietary control of scholarship was angrily challenged as new understandings dislodged old narratives.

Participating in these organic and unpredictable processes of civic debate becomes central to professional work at sites of protest. Though this complex, multilayered process brought together interdisciplinary scholarly teams, the scholars, mostly uncomfortable with high emotions, strident rhetoric and frank discussions about race, struggled with the spiritual and emotional dimensions of visitors' responses. In Philadelphia, archaeologists and interpreters on the viewing platform witnessed, and supported, countless individual struggles with centuries-old historical tropes glorifying Washington, excusing slavery, and tolerating slavery at the founding of the nation.

Even with the site's national academic and public visibility, the local Philadelphia community remains vigilant to prevent loss of this heritage. Ignoring skyrocketing interest in the finds, the officials in charge clung through the summer to their original intention simply to rebury the archaeology and continue installing interpretation designed before the dig began. Local activists focused public outrage from around the nation to force a revision of that plan. Late in July, Mayor Street asked architects and designers to incorporate the three most compelling architectural/archaeological discoveries — the kitchen, bow window, and passageway — into an altered design. Only continued vigilance, however, can assure that the very solid and tangible foundations of the President's house and other archaeological features remain as a visible symbol, helping us see George and Martha Washington — and the United States — as they were, rather than as they may have wished to be remembered.

Dr. Cheryl LaRoche is a Cultural Heritage Specialist with URS Archaeology in Burlington, NJ

 

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