PHILADELPHIA MADE history once again yesterday with the opening of the President's House on Independence Mall, believed to be the country's first federal commemoration of slavery.
The $11.2 million project, known officially as "President's House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation," stands on the footprint of the original structure where presidents George Washington and John Adams resided from 1790 to 1800.
The open-air site, at 6th and Market streets, also pays homage to the nine slaves of African descent who were owned by Washington and worked in the house: Austin, 32, Christopher Sheels, 16, Giles, 32, Hercules, 36, Joe Richardson, 26, Moll, 51, Oney Judge, 17, Paris, 16 and Richmond, 14.
Hercules was Washington's chef and Oney Judge was maid to Martha Washington and her grandchildren. Both escaped enslavement.
"Today, America is a brilliant shining star in a constellation of nations, a revolutionary force in support of individual liberties," Mayor Nutter said to the more than 700 people attending yesterday's ceremony.
"Yet at the time of our nation's founding, many of our great leaders held people in slavery and captivity while the Declaration of Independence soared with the assertion that all men are created equal, [and] President George Washington operated his residences with the labor of enslaved people of African descent."
With the President's House, "we chose to focus on the human dimension of slavery," the mayor said. "We celebrate those who dared to escape, those who never accepted their bondage as permanent."
The eight-year project was funded by the city, the federal government and the Delaware River Port Authority, but will now be managed by Independence National Historical Park. It had its share of controversy along the way about how to commemorate the slavery in the context of President George Washington and the first "White House."
Michael Coard, founding member of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition and a member of the President's House Oversight Committee, received the largest round of applause yesterday.
"I'm known by many as the angriest black man in America," he said. "However today, I am not angry. Not at all. Instead I'm happy. Very happy. That's because history is being made today."
He defended the memorial against detractors "who complain that slavery is too prominent and too conspicuous in this project. It is so prominent and so conspicuous because slavery totally permeated the President's House."
Robin Tasco, of Germantown, weathered the chilly temperatures to attend the event with her husband.
"I was overwhelmed with pride," Tasco said. "A lot of people don't want to talk about the slavery that was done here in the United States and for this to be done at this time, to be sitting there, I just felt the spirit of the ancestors. That's why it was so awesome."