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Source: IHA
Date: July 1, 2004
Byline: Press Release

9th Enslaved African Discovered in Washington's "White House" — at Liberty Bell's New Home

Nine enslaved Africans worked in President George Washington's "White House" — one more than previously recognized — according to a recent discovery by Edward Lawler, Jr., historian of the Independence Hall Association. Philadelphia served as the temporary national capital for ten years while Washington, D.C. was being prepared, and the first president lived at 6th & Market Streets from 1790 to 1797. The recently-opened Liberty Bell Center, one block north of Independence Hall, stands on the site of the President's House.

"The ninth enslaved African was named Joe, and his family later took the surname ‘Richardson.' He worked as a postilion — a footman for the presidential coach — and would have been a groom in the stables," says Lawler who has spent the past seven years researching the President's House. "In 1795 he was probably in his late 20s, with a wife named Sall and three young sons at Mount Vernon — Henry, 7, Elijah, 3, and Dennis, 1."

An October 19, 1795 letter from George Washington to William Pearce, written toward the end of an eight-day journey from Mount Vernon to the capital, mentions "Postilion Joe" as part of the traveling party. The presidential entourage arrived in Philadelphia the following day, and Washington remained in the city through June 13, 1796 — possibly the length of Richardson's stay. The letter is owned by Mount Vernon and was published in the 1930s, but Lawler is the first to recognize its significance regarding the presidential household.

Eight enslaved Africans were brought to the President's House in 1790 — Moll, in her mid-50s, the nanny for Martha Washington's grandchildren; Hercules, in his late-30s, the primary cook; his son Richmond, about 12, a kitchenworker; Giles, a stableworker in his early-30s; Paris, a stableworker in his late teens; Austin, a stableworker in his early-30s; his teenage sister Oney Judge, Martha Washington's body servant; and Christopher Sheels, about 15, Washington's body servant.

Pennsylvania took steps to outlaw slavery in the 1780s, but the visiting residents of other states were permitted to retain their personal slaves for six months. Attorney General Edmund Randolph, a Virginian, was caught by surprise when his enslaved servants demanded and received their freedom under the state law. He advised the president to rotate his enslaved servants out of Pennsylvania to prevent them from establishing the six-month residency necessary to qualify for manumission.

According to Lawler, the enslaved stableworkers probably were housed in the smokehouse, a small outbuilding behind the kitchen that Washington ordered converted into quarters. Giles and Paris were returned to Mount Vernon in 1791. Richardson may have taken the place of Austin, who died in December 1794. Today, the site of the smokehouse lies just outside the main entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.

Philadelphia's free-black community may have had an influence on the nine enslaved Africans. Oney Judge escaped to freedom in 1796 and was hidden by her free-black friends. The following year, Hercules also escaped from the city. Escape attempts from Mount Vernon by Richmond and Christopher Sheels were unsuccessful.

Richardson's wife and children were among the 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and freed after his death. Richardson himself was owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, and was one of 153 "dower" slaves inherited by her grandchildren. Although he seems to have remained enslaved, Joe and Sall Richardson managed to stay together and had at least seven children, all of whom were free. Two of their sons were working at Mount Vernon in 1835.

The Independence Hall Association, along with the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, the Ad Hoc Historians, and other concerned groups, advocates the creation of a memorial to the — now nine — enslaved Africans in the entrance plaza of the Liberty Bell Center — the site of the President's House.

More information, including biographical sketches of the nine enslaved Africans, can be found at the Independence Hall Association Web site:


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