This fall, President Barack Obama is expected to dedicate the new President’s House memorial in Philadelphia, which was briefly the nation’s capital and home to President George Washington. The nation’s first president lived there in a house given to him by his friend, Robert Morris — a house where both men kept slaves.
That America’s first black president will dedicate a museum to this particular piece of U.S. history is an irony not lost on the project’s champions, who have been dogged by controversy in their 10-year effort to open a memorial to the old executive mansion. It’s the story of a nation that continues to come to terms with slavery. For RMU, it’s a reminder of our own part in helping America keep its promise of equal opportunity for all.
He risked his fortune and his life to support the American Revolution. He offered his own ships to fight British frigates, and personally made sure the men who crossed the Delaware with Washington had food, blankets, and bonuses. He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
Still, Robert Morris’s sterling record as a patriot was of little interest to New Yorkers in 1790. In Manhattan, the Financier of the Revolution was Public Enemy No. 1.
Why? As they saw it, Morris stole their capital. The wealthy merchant who became one of Pennsylvania’s first senators brokered a deal to move the new government out of New York City to Philadelphia. There it would remain for 10 years, until workers built a new federal seat on the Potomac.
Enraged New Yorkers savaged Morris. In one political cartoon, the devil uses prostitutes to lure him away to Philadelphia: “Come along Bobby, here’s the girls.” In another, Morris blindly steers the ship of state towards doom in the shoals as another devil calls, “This way, Bobby.” A third cartoon shows a thinly disguised moneygrubber calling himself “Robert Coffer,” clutching a bag of coins and tugging reluctant congressmen out of New York by their noses.
Morris lamented the vitriol in a letter to his wife that summer. “They lay all the blame of this measure on me, and abuse me most unmercifully, both in the Public Prints, private conversations, and even in the streets; and yesterday I was nearly engaged in a serious quarrel with one of them,” he wrote. “However, I don’t mind all they can do, and if I carry the point, I will, like a good Christian, forgive them all.”
He did carry the point. And in a gesture of magnanimity, Morris offered his own Market Street mansion to his old friend and frequent houseguest, George Washington. The president was delighted. “It is, I believe, the best single house in the city,” wrote Washington.
In 2000, crews excavating at Independence National Historical Park for an expansion of the Liberty Bell pavilion discovered the foundations of the old house, which had long ago been razed. But along with the old architectural remains, a new and uncomfortable truth was unearthed, one that has launched a ferocious debate about the purposes of history and memorial. Scholars soon confirmed that also living in the mansion with Washington and the First Lady were nine slaves. What’s more, personal letters show the man who “could not tell a lie” actively conspired with a key aide to deceive his slaves, making sure they stayed unaware of Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law, which freed any non-Pennsylvanian’s slave who lived within the commonwealth for more than six consecutive months. Washington went so far as to rotate his slaves periodically back to his Virginia estate at Mount Vernon to dodge the rule.
America’s first president was hardly the only Founding Father who benefited from human bondage. Chattel slavery was the law at the time; those who lived in the Philadelphia house before Washington also kept slaves, Morris included. But now, the ghosts of Washington’s slaves were at the threshold of the Liberty Bell, one of the nation’s most powerful symbols of freedom. Many found it hard to bear “that in the City of Brotherly Love, the center of the abolition movement of this period, in the home of the first president, that freedom and slavery should be joined at the hip,” says UCLA history professor Gary Nash, an expert on the colonial era.
A group of mostly black Philadelphians called the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition demanded that a new museum at the site be devoted not to the familiar story of Washington, but to that of his slaves, as well as the other Africans and their descendants who inhabited early Philadelphia, both slave and free. The National Park Service agreed, promising to give the coalition and other concerned citizens a say in how the site would be presented.
Slowly, the project has proceeded. Workers are almost finished with the new museum next to Independence Hall. The symbolic partial reconstruction follows the footprint of the old house, and will document with text and video reenactments the lives of Washington’s slaves.
Doris Devine Fanelli, chief of cultural resources management for the National Park Service, has worked at the Independence Hall complex for 31 years. To her, the often tempestuous President’s House project is an excellent example of civic engagement. “I have said that any museum, if they ever woke up and found hundreds of people on their doorstep demanding to come in, they’d be delighted,” she says.
Not everyone agrees. Rob Morris, a software designer from suburban Philadelphia and a distant descendant of the house’s former owner, is furious that his ancestor has been swept aside in the retelling. “Everybody knows George Washington’s story, and there isn’t a kid in America who hasn’t heard about slavery,” he says. “But this is the only place to tell Morris’s story, and what is Morris’s story? It is how free market capitalism saved the American Revolution.”
Charles Blockson, a local expert on early African American history who has donated an impressive collection of artifacts to Temple University, is equally furious. He vehemently opposes rebuilding what he calls a “house of bondage.” “There should be a memorial for those enslaved Africans. Just tell the story, and let it go.”
At the center of the public maelstrom is Rosalyn McPherson. The city’s appointed manager for the President’s House project, McPherson brings what is probably the perfect resume to the job: She started out as a junior high school history teacher, then became a textbook editor, went on to Time Warner to develop a popular history series and later adapted the material for classrooms, then became senior vice president of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s venerable science museum.
And as a black woman who remembers seeing segregated drinking fountains when her family visited relatives in Louisiana, McPherson admits the project has had “a deep personal effect on me.” She says she is eager to see busloads of visiting schoolchildren discover the stories of Hercules and Oney Judge, two presidential slaves who escaped to freedom during Washington’s term in office.
“Our history usually has portrayed African Americans in a passive role, with others doing the emancipating. This exhibit tells the story of the role we played in securing our own freedom,” McPherson says.
Nash, who is one of the project’s chief historians, said Americans should not fear the new museum will wrongly sully Washington’s reputation or rob him of his rightful place in history.
“My take is that it’s only in a mature democracy that you can look history squarely in the face like this,” he says. “I don’t think we’re kicking Washington out of the pantheon or knocking him off his pedestal. We are saying he was human, he was a man of the age, that he had warts, figuratively speaking. But there’s still plenty of glory to be passed out to Washington, Jefferson, and the other slaveholding Founding Fathers. They accomplished a great deal.”
Fanelli says she is sure the President’s House will lead Americans to a better understanding of their history. During excavations, the park service set up public bleachers where day after day, people came to watch. “This is really exciting,” Fanelli explains. “They comment to each other, and pretty soon a dialog ensues between people who may have never known each other before. It’s very productive for harmony in our society.”
Despite all the attention garnered by the rebuilding of the President’s House, the man who did the most to get it in Philadelphia in the first place seems destined to linger in relative obscurity. Many people no doubt know Robert Morris’s name best through RMU, which has no real connection to Morris; Richard Khuen, president of the university when it was known as the Pittsburgh School of Accountancy, selected Morris’ name in 1935 because of the founder’s role in financing the American Revolution.
Partly it is Morris’s own bad luck. He eventually sold the house to pay for an enormous marble mansion in Philadelphia. It was a boondoggle almost from the start; Morris quarreled with the architect, Pierre L’Enfant, who was splitting his time between his client’s massive project and the new federal city, which he famously designed. The huge mansion, mocked as “Morris’s Folly,” was never finished. He later lost it, along with nearly everything else he owned, after several of his land speculation deals went bust. Washington eventually had to visit his former host in debtor’s prison.
But even if he is generally unknown to the public, Morris is still recognized by historians as a quintessential figure in the republic’s formation. Morris occupies a prominent place in the most celebrated paintings of America’s founding, including the dome of the Capitol rotunda. His statue stands in Philadelphia at the Second Bank of America, a few blocks from his old house.
That is far more than anyone remembers about Hero. Mostly there is just a notice in a Philadelphia newspaper from 1777. It is written by a concerned owner who, in the chaos as he and his neighbors prepare to flee the city in the face of the advancing British, has discovered that a valuable piece of his property has gone missing. In that ad, Morris describes his runaway slave: “Plays well on the violin, whistles remarkably well, and has an excellent ear for music.”
Rex Crawley, Ph.D., chairman of the Robert Morris University Council on Institutional Equity and assistant dean of the School of Communications and Information Systems, says it pains him to think his ancestors were treated as less than fully human by the university's namesake. Crawley is the force behind the Black Male Leadership Development Institute, which each summer brings dozens of black high school students to campus, where they learn leadership skills and the value of higher education.
“Robert Morris is not my hero. Hero is my hero,” Crawley says of the escaped slave. “When I close my eyes and envision Robert Morris’s house as a place of bondage, and then think of the RMU campus and the BMLDI as a place of empowerment, there’s that juxtaposition of history, and an ultimate good. Robert Morris probably never could have imagined that his legacy would include the education and empowerment of African Americans."
To find out more about the President's House visit the official website at http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/