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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: May 8, 2010
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Critics denounce plans for President's House

At a raucous and sometimes profane public meeting Friday night, critics denounced plans for the President's House memorial under construction on Independence Mall.

City and project officials, who had not conducted a session to update the public on the oft-delayed project for almost three years, sought to present a newly revised interpretive plan for the site where George Washington and John Adams conducted their presidencies and Washington held at least nine enslaved Africans.

But before Emanuel Kelly, principal of Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, designers of the memorial at Sixth and Market Streets, could discuss the status of construction, he was interrupted by a chorus of loud complaints over the use of a white-owned general contractor at the site, and a torrent of criticism over the site's overall presentation of the black experience.

"George Washington broke the law, he broke the law!" shouted Sacaree Rhodes, a community activist involved in the project for almost 10 years. "Where is the rape? Where is the brutality? I am a black woman! You will not do this. You will tell the truth."

That opened a floodgate of shouts from several of the roughly 75 people at the meeting at the Convention Center.

Clay Armbrister, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, tried to bring order, but failed.

"That is a house of horror," a man shouted, referring to Washington's residence.

"When we started, we wanted a commemoration for the enslaved," Rhodes said. "We didn't want no house. How dare you!"

Kelly sought to continue, but gave up.

Charles Blockson, curator emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, arranged for critics to queue up and voice their complaints. Kelly, Armbrister, and Rosalyn McPherson, manager of the project for the city and Independence National Historical Park, sat and listened.

Rhodes focused on one of Washington's enslaved, Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal servant, who escaped slavery in Philadelphia and made her way to New Hampshire. Judge, daughter of a white tailor and an enslaved Mount Vernon seamstress (who herself had mixed parents), was pursued by Washington's agents but maintained her freedom in New England.

"She was raped, she was beat," Rhodes said.

The plans for the memorial include a stylized reconstruction of the house, with an enclosed-glass central area that would allow visitors to see the archaeological remains of the house, torn down in 1831. Other rooms would symbolize the slave quarters, and interpretive panels would explain the house and slavery.

Several critics spoke contemptuously of any characterization of the house as "the President's House"; they called it "the house of bondage" or "the house of horrors."

A considerable amount of criticism was directed at video presentations that will be a prominent part of the memorial. Critics said the portrayals belied the harsh realities of slavery in Philadelphia, making Washington's chattel slaves appear happy and well-scrubbed.

Kelly bristled at that. "These are not stories of happy times," he said. "You've been misinformed."

Blockson said he would push for an organized protest of the memorial and would seek an investigation into the uses of the funding for the $8.5 million project.

Michael Coard, an oversight committee member and a leader of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, an activist group, said his organization "supported the effort of the oversight committee and would continue to work with it."

McPherson said the oversight committee would meet Monday and review comments from the meeting and others submitted by the public. She said that many of the criticisms at the meeting were aimed at issues already resolved, but that the committee would continue to refine the presentation.


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