Visitors to the famed Liberty Bell in Philadelphia had no idea that on their journey to learn about American freedom, they were literally walking over the country’s rarely-discussed history of slavery.
But a recent archeological find — right next to the Liberty Bell — at the site of the house that once served as the presidential residence of George Washington and John Adams for 10 years in the late 1700s, has revealed that America’s first president did indeed have slaves, even during a time when he spoke against servitude.
One story below street level, on the corner of Sixth and Market, a recent dig revealed a brick and stone foundation of the President’s House, which was built in 1757 and torn down in 1832. While experts expected to find the foundation, they didn’t expect to unearth the outline of what is believed to have been slave quarters and an underground tunnel designed to hide some nine slaves from the chief executive’s houseguests.
Until now, most people associated Washington’s slave ownership with his Mt. Vernon, VA, residence. Although astute historians knew otherwise, it generally has been thought by the public that, as president, Washington owned no slaves.
The discovery that the country’s top statesman owned slaves prompted Philadelphia Mayor John Street to commission a task force and give it 60 days to come up with a plan to incorporate the new archeological findings into the planned site that would commemorate the first executive mansion.
“We have charged the task force with the task to come forth with some real viable options to how we should treat this wonderful finding ... this wonderful new information that we have,” he said during a press conference at the city’s National Constitution Center. “It gives us an even greater opportunity to appreciate the great freedom that we have.”
To ignore the newfound history of slaves during America’s first presidency, and only recognize the country’s quest for freedom would be a travesty, said archeologist Cheryl LaRoche, who has been commissioned to work on the $5.2 million site, which is scheduled to open in 2009.
“You would have to walk over the slave quarters in order to discuss freedom, liberty and the Liberty Bell. The irony of it was too much and came to a point where Mayor Street and the public said that we need to rethink this ...,” said LaRoche, who is also an African-American history professor at the University of Maryland, during a tour of the remains. “We are really striving to usher in a new narrative around not just African-American history, but a new historical narrative around American history, and to bring slavery into its rightful position and to bring freedom, more importantly into its rightful position. This is all happening because we are able to look through the lens of archeology.
“We can now look at this space with equal weight,” she continued. “We can now speak about George Washington in the same breath that we are speaking about enslaved Africans. And we are now able to speak about their life in combination with Washington’s life in that way in which he would have lived his life. This is an amazing opportunity to give Americans a perspective on history.”
The finding comes as the state of Pennsylvania launches its summer-long “Quest for Freedom” African-American history programs across the state. Officials hope that the weekend tours and special exhibits, including the archeological finding at the President’s House and living-history programs at the more than 20 Underground Railroad locations throughout the city, will help teach visitors about the African-American experience.