the president's house project unearths an ugly history
George Washington may not have told a lie, but he sure lived one.
The Father of His Country, in accord with the Declaration of Independence that serves up the "all men are created equal" little white line, was as two-faced as they come when it came to slavery. Our nation's first president was a slave master. He owned 36 slaves when he married the widower Martha Custis, who had inherited nearly 100 slaves from the estate of Daniel Parke Custis. Washington couldn't run his Mount Vernon estate — nor the newly-minted union — without the free black labor. So when the general of the Revolutionary War became the first commander-in-chief and moved into the nation's first "White House" in Philadelphia he brought more than a handful of his negroes with him.
Washington's dependency on enslaved Africans is not news. What is news, however, is that this been-told-but-seldom-discussed chunk of American history will soon forever go public.
Within the next two to three weeks in the City of Brotherly Love, an architectural rendering for the President's House Project/Slavery Commemoration will be unveiled on Sixth and Market Streets, the site where the old executive mansion stood until the 1830s and where the new Liberty Bell Center stands today. It's where Washington and John Adams lived when Philadelphia was the national Capitol from 1790–1800. It's where President Washington kept nine enslaved blacks in close quarters -– exactly five feet away from America's first executive mansion. When construction is complete, the project will lay out in excruciating detail the historical hypocrisy that is the undergirding of this nation.
"It changes the foundation of American history as we know it," says activist attorney Michael Coard who spoke last week before the Trotter Group, a collection of black columnists from across the nation. Coard heads up the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) which bills itself as "a broad-based coalition of historians, activists, attorneys, elected officials, religious leaders, media personalities, and other taxpaying voters — descendants of the victims of the greatest holocaust in the history of humankind." The coalition formed five years ago and began protests when it was discovered that the story of slavery in the executive mansion was being footnoted.
Thanks to the efforts of ATAC, Independence National Park officials oversaw an archeological dig that uncovered the buried slave quarters. So, when the President's House Project becomes a reality, the old history books will have to be trashed. The new textbooks will have to reveal what tourists from home and abroad will see as they come to check out the new site of the old big busted bell.
"The slavery commemoration component is our Statue of Liberty," Coard said. "It shows for the first time in American history that black folk are responsible for the greatness of America."
Our contribution to America's greatness is not a pretty picture. As if a metaphor for this nation, the President's House was built by slaves for slave masters. The mansion was built in 1767-68 by the widow of the aptly named William Masters, the mayor of Philadelphia in the 1750s and a powerful merchant who was most likely the city's largest slave owner. It was bought in1781 by financier Robert Morris, who bankrolled General Washington and much of the American Revolution.
Morris, a signatory of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, was also a partner of Willing and Morris, an import-export business that imported kidnaped Africans and other valuables. After restoring the Mansion to its former glory, Morris made it available to Washington a year after his first inauguration. Although Washington's Mount Vernon plantation had as many as 316 slaves, the president had only nine at his Philadelphia executive mansion, which, according to Temple University's Charles L. Blockson, curator emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, was not the "president's house" but the "prisoner's house." He had been attempting to draw attention to Washington and his Philadelphia slaves long before it came to the attention of the Avenging coalition.
Blockson, whose slave memorabilia collection includes books bound with the skin from enslaved Africans, knows from his extensive research that our first president was not necessarily a believer in benign bondage. The Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 required that any slave in the state be set free after six months. Washington did an end run around the legislation by rotating his slaves between Philly and Mt. Vernon — every six months.
But it may be that our first president's bite was worse — much worse — than his bark. As it turns out, those false teeth we've all read about weren't made of wood after all. Some scholars now believe they were real teeth yanked from the mouths of Washington's slaves.