Two stories, one nation
Across Independence Mall on this Fourth of July, storytellers will entertain Philadelphia visitors with tales of the American colonists' struggle for independence. Literally beneath their feet, though, an equally stirring story of another people's quest for freedom waits to be told to a much wider audience.
It's a disquieting narrative about how the first president quartered nine slaves in the nation's first White House, a mansion at Sixth and Market Streets in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Yet it's also a saga of hope, telling how two of George Washington's slaves escaped. Moreover, the seeds of the 20th-century's civil rights struggle were planted nearby in a colonial-era settlement created by free African Americans.
The little-told chapter in United States history is being uncovered by archaeologists working near Independence Hall. Their legacy will be a fuller picture of the nation's Founders. (That era was detailed this week in several Inquirer articles, now posted at go.philly.com/presidentshouse.)
Two years from now, a memorial to Washington's slaves will rise next to the Liberty Bell Pavilion on the site that was home to Washington and then John Adams. Being built by the National Park Service, the memorial will be a unique and different shrine to freedom than its famous neighbor. It cannot be built soon enough.
Long slighted in the retelling of the nation's birth, the irony of a slave-holding president only became widely reported to historic-area visitors last summer. In what proved to be a genius stroke, then-Mayor John F. Street jump-started the first full-scale excavation of Washington's house. The dig unearthed artifacts the slaves likely touched, as well as exposing the ground they walked.
With good reason, black-history activists such as attorney Michael Coard, head of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, now commemorate the ground as sacred in ceremonies like the one held there yesterday. Among park visitors of all backgrounds, though, the dig triggered a sensation that bodes well for the so-called President's House memorial as a compelling tourist attraction.
Philadelphians can take special pride in this update to history. What more appropriate setting? From the mansion, Martha Washington's personal servant, Oney Judge, fled to freedom.
Celebrating that noble desire to break the bonds of slavery all the more poignantly pays tribute to the Declaration's preamble of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" — since the Founders did not extend those "inalienable rights" to all.