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Source: Philadelphia Daily News
Date: July 31, 2007
Byline: Valerie Russ

At President's House dig, 'we get a lot of tears'

250,000 have visited site where Washington kept slaves, but it temporarily closes today

WITH A LOOK of pain on his face, Roger Reddick turned away from the wooden railing at the President's House archaeological dig of the quarters where George Washington kept at least nine blacks enslaved.

Reddick had the look of someone attending a funeral who had finally turned away from an open casket.

"I felt as though I had been at a viewing," he said yesterday, minutes after leaving the platform.

"For a moment, I had the wild idea of jumping over that railing and just kneeling to the ground."

The intense emotions Reddick expressed are not unusual at the dig, at 6th and Market streets, National Park Service officials say.

While archaeologists have opened up the earth — exposing ruins of the site that served as presidential home between 1790 and 1800 — they have also opened up spiritual wounds, including the pain of slavery and the difficulty of accepting an untold side of Washington's life.

"It's like a scar on the American psyche," said Reddick, 65, a building engineer at the U.S. Postal Service's main distribution center in Philadelphia.

Washington lived in the house from 1790 to 1797. John Adams followed, living there from 1797 to 1800, before he moved to the new official White House, in Washington, D.C. But only Washington kept slaves there.

Yesterday was the last day for visitors to see the President's House dig — at least for a while.

At 11 a.m. today, the National Park Service and the city will have a "closing ceremony." The site will be covered temporarily to protect it from the elements until a permanent memorial is completed.

Some 250,000 visitors have come to the platform over the past four months, Independence National Historical Park officials said.

They have peered over the railing to see the foundation for the kitchen where the famed Hercules was a master chef before he escaped to freedom. They have seen the underground passageway that kept servants and slaves out of sight from the gentry, and the footprint of the bow window Washington ordered especially built, which is believed to be a forerunner to the Oval Office at the White House.

"I think it's amazing to be able to look right into the past," said Heidi Edelman, a tourist visiting with her family from Boynton Beach, Fla.

Some visitors are quiet and pensive and listen to the story with solemn faces. Some ask a lot of questions and call the dig "fascinating."

Then there are the good number of people who cry.

"We get a lot of tears," said historical archaeologist Patrice Jeppson, who volunteers to give talks about the dig.

"People are hurt," when they see it, she added.

A few, black and white, have also been vocal in their anger.

Jeppson said she remembers one black man who walked past the site and started yelling that the government had deliberately covered up this part of Washington's story.

Some visitors are angry for another reason, said Jeppson, who is white.

"I've been yelled at by people who said we should not be saying this about George Washington, that he was a good man," she said.

One day shortly before a July 4th ceremony, historical archaeologist Cheryl LaRoche, an African-American professor, was interrupted by a white historian who took exception to the way she was telling the story.

"George Washington wanted to end slavery, but he was concerned that it would start a civil war at a time when the nation was just being formed," said the historian, who didn't give his name.

A Wisconsin tourist patted the historian on the shoulder and gave him a thumbs-up, as if thanking him for standing up for Washington's honor.

But LaRoche held her ground.

"If Washington was so concerned with ending slavery, then why did he sign the Fugitive Slave Act [of 1793] in this very house?" she asked.

Yesterday, Jeppson said she has been shocked by some white visitors who asked why at least two of the enslaved servants, Hercules and Ona Judge, would escape to freedom when, "they were living in such a nice house."

The varied reactions don't deter Romona Riscoe Benson, president and chief executive of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and a member of an oversight committee that must decide how to preserve the site. "It's not always going to be a story that people want to hear," she said.

But she said the committee is determined "to make sure that the story of the enslaved people is told, and that it is told properly."

In presenting their talks, the archaeologists concede the dig wouldn't have happened at all without the demands of the public.

Michael Coard, a Philadelphia lawyer who started the group, ATAC, (or, the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition), said his group spoke "truth to power, and power listened . . . This project is absolutely more historic than any other site in America," Coard said.

"We have examples of white freedom all over the place, but this was a site where white freedom and black slavery [existed] side by side."

 

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