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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 31, 2002
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Proposed wording on slave quarters draws fire

A statement about "servants" at the future Liberty Bell Center is misleading, critics say.

Some scholars and African Americans are dismayed over what they perceive as inaccurate or misleading statements about slavery contained in a preliminary National Park Service text commemorating the house in Philadelphia used by George Washington during his presidency.

The text asserts that Washington, who kept as many as eight slaves at the Market Street residence, housed his "servants" throughout the house. The building had no "slave quarters," according to the Park Service, because no part of it was used exclusively by slaves.

Edward Lawler Jr., an independent authority on the house, was aghast at the implications of those statements.

"Do you believe there were no slave quarters?" he said. "It's almost absurd to think that."

Charles L. Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, was equally upset.

"They don't identify [slave] quarters?" he said. "It's absurd. It's nauseous... . They're saying, 'To hell with the public.' "

Controversy over Washington's slaves erupted last spring when it was reported that the entrance to the new Liberty Bell Center, under construction south of Sixth and Market Streets, would be situated almost directly over the spot where Washington housed his slaves.

The Park Service subsequently agreed to add extensive discussions of slavery to its Liberty Bell pavilion exhibits.

Before the controversy, the Park Service had no plans to commemorate Washington's slaves or the so-called President's House, where the slave-owning Washington lived, followed by John Adams, who was antislavery. Adams moved to the new White House in Washington in November 1800.

A coalition of African Americans has since called for a slave memorial near the site, and Congress has directed the Park Service "to appropriately commemorate" Washington's human property.

Phil Sheridan, spokesman for Independence National Historical Park, said that "primary documents call [the rear of the President's House] the servants' hall."

There are no historical records "that said it was a slave quarters," Sheridan said. "If someone has evidence we are in error, we would like to see it."

Lawler has unearthed - and published - letters between Washington and his secretary discussing plans to house those slaves from Mount Vernon, Washington's Virginia estate, who would be serving the president in Philadelphia. Washington decided to build an addition to the smokehouse at the rear of the Philadelphia residence, the letters show. Slaves named Giles, Austin and Paris lived there initially.

"There's no question slaves existed on the site," Sheridan said. "But we're standing with what Washington called it, and we are standing with the fact that no one knows if slaves slept there or if slaves didn't sleep there."

Stephanie Wolf, a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said referring to slaves as servants was a common euphemism in the 18th century.

"The word servant is always used that way," she said. "Old historians used to say there were no slaves in New England because they always showed up as servants."

Regarding the slave quarters, Wolf was succinct: "If it was used to house slaves, it was slave housing."

There are other problems with the preliminary exhibition text posted by the Park Service on its Web site (www.nps.gov/inde/lbc.html), scholars say.

Most important, the Park Service asserts that the President's House was completely demolished in 1832.

As of late yesterday, the text posted on the Park Service site stated that no archaeological evidence of the house exists.

The Park Service acknowledges, however, that this statement is in error.

Not only was the house not completely demolished in 1832, but most of the east wall and part of the west wall of the building still existed as late as 1951. The demolition of buildings along Market Street in preparation for the creation of Independence Mall brought down the last of the President's House.

The Park Service, which is meeting with historians and members of the African American community today to discuss the commemoration of the President's House and slavery, now says it is possible that elements of the house foundation and other features still lie beneath Independence Mall.

 

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