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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: July 4, 2004
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Slave discovery roils mall issue

Evidence of another slave in Washington's house bolsters calls for a memorial in the park.

The presence of a previously unknown slave residing in the Philadelphia home of President George Washington has been discovered, bringing to nine the number of known slaves who lived there.

The finding of the ninth slave, made by independent historian Edward Lawler Jr., strengthens the known African ties to the Market Street President's House, which served as home and office in the late 18th century for Washington and his successor, the antislavery John Adams.

Groups urging memorialization of Washington's slaves on Independence Mall believe the discovery fortifies their case, which they plan to make in a demonstration at 4 p.m. today at Sixth and Market Streets.

"It's not just historical information," said attorney Michael Coard, a leader of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition. "It's cultural ammunition... . Our argument becomes even greater now that we have found out about the ninth enslaved African."

"Postilion Joe," as Washington called him, arrived with the president from Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1795 and may have stayed until June 1796 or perhaps longer, said Lawler, who is associated with the nonprofit Independence Hall Association, an independent group concerned with park issues.

As a postilion, or footman, Joe would probably have lived in an area behind the house used to quarter several slaves connected with the stables.

Park officials said they had been unaware of Postilion Joe's existence.

"We always said there were about eight or nine" slaves at the house, said Phil Sheridan, spokesman for Independence National Historical Park.

An Oct. 19, 1795, letter from George Washington to his farm manager, William Pearce, written toward the end of an eight-day journey from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia, mentions Joe as part of the traveling party, Lawler said.

The presidential entourage arrived in the city the following day; Washington remained here through June 13, 1796. The letter is owned by the Mount Vernon Estate and was published in the 1930s, but Lawler is believed to be the first to recognize its significance regarding the makeup of the presidential household.

Lawler said that Joe — whose family later took the surname Richardson — was probably in his late 20s when he arrived in Philadelphia.

Richardson's wife, Sall, and their 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 so-called 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, Lawler said.

The presence of slavery on Independence Mall — steps from the Liberty Bell — has been a subject of considerable controversy since it was reported more than two years ago that the National Park Service intended to brush over the subject.

Visitors to the new Liberty Bell Center enter the building by walking directly over the spot where Washington quartered his African slaves.

Public outcry in 2002 prompted the Park Service to revamp Liberty Bell exhibits to include an exploration of slavery and led Congress to direct the agency "to appropriately commemorate" Washington's slaves.

Lack of progress on the commemoration project, however, has led to a growing public restiveness, particularly within the black community. There is still no mention, no marker, no sign acknowledging the fact that Washington's slaves were housed near the Liberty Bell Center entrance.

"We have got to see something," said Coard, of Avenging the Ancestors. "We've got to see something happen."

In Coard's view, "embarrassment" has led the Park Service to drag its feet.

"It's the embarrassment of acknowledging that there was a hell of slavery right in the middle of their heaven of liberty," he said.

More than a year ago, the Park Service unveiled a design concept for a slave and President's House memorial, which would be at the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets, where the Washington-Adams residence stood until it was demolished in 1832.

That design prompted loud criticism at a public unveiling in January 2003. No further work on the project has been done.

"We don't have the money," said Sheridan, the park spokesman. "There's no money to get people together. No money to go through conceptual designs and bring them to fruition. And, finally, you need money... . To do any type of design is not possible without funding."

Moreover, Sheridan said, there must be consensus on what an appropriate memorial would be. "It's not something the park would do unilaterally," he said.

Last week, Independence Park received a $5,000 grant that Sheridan said would be used to put together a public discussion on the President's House and slavery, probably in the fall.

 

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