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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: April 2, 2002
Byline: Acel Moore

Unearth bitter history of Washington's slaves

The U.S. Park Service should not be allowed to cover over the glaring contradictions — call them acts of hypocrisy — by this nation's first president.

Philadelphia was this nation's first capital, and historians document that George Washington, while serving as president, held slaves in stables and utility buildings adjoining the executive mansion. Those grounds lie underneath or are within a few feet of the new Liberty Bell pavilion under construction. The exact site and dimensions of Washington's slave quarters have only recently been documented by historian Edward Lawler and others.

The Park Service, whose domain includes the administration of historic sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall, won't halt construction to allow archeologists and historians to excavate and examine the old slave quarters. The specious argument: The Liberty Bell is its own story and Washington's slaves somehow a different one better told elsewhere.

Yet, as curator and historian Charles Blockson points out, the Park Service has been aware since 1975 that mid-19th-century abolitionists used the inscription on the Liberty Bell as a rallying cry: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof." So the bell and slavery are inseparable.

Blockson made that point in Pennsylvania's Black History, a book he wrote for the 1976 bicentennial celebrations. The bell and the fact that Washington and other founding fathers owned slaves while proclaiming freedom for all are intrinsic parts of American history.

Blockson, who has been chairperson of the National Park Services Undergound Railroad Advisory Committee, says: "The early abolitionists William Wells Brown, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass used the Liberty inscription as their theme and mantra."

Washington, Blockson says, was in violation of Pennsylvania law when he held slaves here.

In African Americans in Pennsylvania: Above Ground and Undergound, published last year, Blockson points to other contradictions in Washington's life and public service. Thirty-three percent of his army, for example, consisted of African Americans, most of them free men — led by a man who kept black slaves.

Washington evidently saw no difficulty in hiring some free blacks while owning other enslaved blacks. While he presided in Philadelphia, his executive chef was a wealthy free black man named Samuel Fraunces — who went on to establish two famous colonial taverns, one in Philadelphia and one still in existence in New York City.

Blockson quotes a 1783 letter to Washington from the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who helped the colonists defeat the British: "Let us unite in purchasing a small estate, where we may try the experiment to free Negroes and use them as tenants. Such an example as yours might render it a general practice, and if we succeed in America, I will cheerfully devote a part of my time to render the method fashionable in the West Indies."

Washington's reply praised Lafayette but avoided a direct response. The plan never came to fruition. Blockson considers Lafayette's letter the first call for reparations for African Americans in the United States.

The second call came from U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Lancaster County, who in the 1860s called for a program to give freed blacks 40 acres and a mule.

The third reference to reparations is contained in a recent bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Conyers' bill simply calls for a commission to study slavery and its impact on African Americans. Not a remedy — only a study to unearth the facts.

Full knowledge of all of American history would benefit all citizens of this nation. It might even foster better understanding, respect and tolerance.

One thing for sure: Covering it up will not.

 

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