Darrell Lee stood just feet from the Liberty Bell yesterday, but the story he told was not of freedom. He played the role of Giles, one of nine enslaved Africans owned by George Washington.
"My ancestors hated every second of slavery," he said in character to the more than 200 people who gathered at Independence National Historical Park, the site of the nation's first executive mansion. The interpreter spoke of how Africans fleeing slavery would run to the water to throw bloodhounds off their scent. He began to sing the Negro spiritual "Wade in the Water," and the crowd joined in.
For the last six years, a group called Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) has gathered to honor the nine Africans who were Washington's slaves at the President's House. This year, the group also celebrated plans for a memorial that will include exhibits about Africans enslaved there. The $7 million memorial is scheduled for completion in 2010.
"For black folks, this is our Statue of Liberty; for black folks, this is our Mount Rushmore," said Michael Coard, an attorney and leader of ATAC, the group that fought to bring recognition to the slaves owned by Washington in Philadelphia. "You can bet our ancestors are sitting here ecstatic about the work we've done."
The President's House was demolished in the 1930s. Stories of the slaves who lived there emerged in 2002, when citizen groups and scholars complained about how plans for a new Liberty Bell Center would have visitors walk over the unmarked place where slaves had quarters.
Several people interviewed at the ceremony yesterday said they had not had much reason to celebrate the Fourth of July in the past and were thrilled to have a monument to African American history on Independence Mall.
"We need to have black faces," said Feya Waters, 24, a fashion designer and seamstress from Germantown. "It was difficult for me as an adult and a parent to swallow all of the freedom and the Fourth of July, because it wasn't for our people."
Waters, who brought her 4-month-old daughter, Freedom, and her 2-year-old, Nefertiti, to the program, said that she would bring her children to the memorial when it was completed.
Some of the nine Africans escaped despite Washington's efforts to hold onto them. Oney Judge, who was 16 when she was enslaved at the President's House, escaped to New Hampshire after she discovered that Martha Washington planned to give her as a wedding gift to her eldest granddaughter. Hercules, Washington's chef, also escaped; no one has discovered what became of him.
"I had somewhat prominent status in Master Washington's household," said Gerald Robbins, who portrayed Hercules yesterday. "You see, I had nice clothes. But I was nothing but a thing to Master Washington . . . a species of property."
Several in the audience wore buttons in support of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
"We've always been told, 'No, you could not.' We were told we wouldn't be allowed to read," said Cynthia Alston, 56, of West Philadelphia. "Obama and our ancestors, we were told we couldn't. In 2008, yes we can."