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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: July 3, 2009
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Minority role pushed in President's House project

When supporters of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition converge on the site of the future President's House memorial at 4 p.m. today, they will be seeking to redeem the unpaid labor of enslaved forebears by ensuring paid labor in the here and now.

"It would be the height of historical hypocrisy that this would be built without the paid contributions of the sons and daughters of those who were enslaved here and built here in the first place," said Michael Coard, a founder of the coalition.

On July 3 every year since 2002, the coalition has rallied in support of a President's House memorial at Sixth and Market Streets, the spot where Presidents George Washington and John Adams lived and worked during the 1790s and where Washington held at least nine enslaved Africans.

Now, with the $8.5 million construction project roughly a month from breaking ground, according to planners, the question of minority participation has become a key concern for community activists.

"We will raise hell if they don't get the work," said Sacaree Rhodes, an activist and member of Generations Unlimited, a group concerned with the President's House and other sites related to the African American experience. Rhodes has focused on minority participation in the project since virtually the beginning of planning more than six years ago.

"I'm going to take my chair and go down there every day and count who's working on that site," she said this week.

City officials managing the project, slated for completion and dedication a year from now, say they agree with their critics. From the project's beginnings under Mayor John F. Street, they say maximizing minority participation in the design, interpretation, and construction of the memorial has been a priority.

"This project was always designed to include minority contractors," said Rosalyn McPherson, a consultant overseeing the project for the city. "Joyce Wilkerson [Street's chief of staff] was always adamant about that from the beginning."

McPherson and other officials contacted this week said black contractors will have major roles in building the memorial. But the job is a small one and the percentage of minority participation will probably not be determined until next week.

McPherson estimated that 50 workers would be employed on the site — masons, electricians, and others in the building trades — over the course of a year.

Emanuel Kelly, principal of Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, designer of the memorial, said there would probably be about a dozen workers on site at any given time.

"This is a very small project," McPherson said. "People tend to look at it like the Convention Center."

One reason for that is that white-run Daniel J. Keating Co., general contractor for the $800 million Pennsylvania Convention Center and the President's House, has been criticized by minority subcontractors who feel shut out of Convention Center work despite diversity requirements.

At a contentious President's House meeting with black subcontractors in May, Pierce Keating, chairman and chief executive of the Narberth construction firm, was severely criticized and said that "given the groundswell here" he would "bow out" of the project.

That hasn't happened. Both Kelly and McPherson said Keating, whose firm has done much work over the years at Independence Park, was bound to the President's House project by contract.

McPherson also noted that Kelly/Maiello is a minority firm and that her own company, the Roz Group, is minority-owned. Kelly said at least 70 percent of project design work has been dealt to minorities; African American artists — novelist Lorene Cary and filmmaker Louis Massiah — are creating the scripts and theatrical videos that will dominate the site, she added.

"I can assure you there will be a high participation of minority contractors on this project," Kelly said.

While public attention has focused on construction issues, another nettlesome President's House problem has simmered along without resolution: What to do about Washington's steward, Samuel Fraunces.

Fraunces, a well-known tavern owner in New York, was hired by Washington to run his household and came with the president to Philadelphia in 1790. He remained in charge of the staff — including Washington's indentured servants and enslaved Africans — until 1794, probably living in the President's House, according to Independence Park officials.

Many researchers, including Philadelphia historian and scholar Charles Blockson, contend that Fraunces — known as Black Sam to contemporaries — was a mulatto from Jamaica. Blockson says Fraunces is buried in an unmarked grave at St. Peter's Church in Old City and has never received his due as an important African American forebear.

Other scholars argue that, nickname notwithstanding, Fraunces was white.

The documentary evidence uncovered so far is inconclusive and provides ammunition to both sides, said park service historians, who freely admit they simply don't know what to make of Fraunces.

If he is white, his presence at the President's House matters little with regard to the story told there — "he's just an extension of Washington," said Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University.

But if Fraunces is black, the President's House story becomes more complex, reflecting even more acutely the contradictions and ambiguities of race in America.

"The way the whole story has emerged, you've got conflicts of identity, conflicts of loyalty, conflicts of responsibility that are now neatly packaged," Miller continued. "If you introduce a free black into it as steward . . . it introduces ambiguity where you want clarity. From an historian's point of view, this is fantastic stuff."

In the end, said Miller, the unresolved issue "shows the enormous potential of the site."

Park service officials say they have no definitive answers and may include Fraunces by laying out the contradictory racial evidence without leaning one way or the other.

"There's always a mystery about him," said Independence Park historian Anna Coxe Toogood.

 

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