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Source: Journal Online (Chicago)
Date: December 30, 2010
Byline: Jim Weaver

Philly's 'President's House'

We sometimes forget that Philadelphia served as the U.S. Capital before Washington, D.C., was established, and that President George Washington served his entire term (1790-97) living and working in Philadelphia.

President John Adams also lived in Philadelphia during the early years of his presidency until White House construction was completed.

Washington was a Virginia plantation owner and held 300 slaves who did all the farming and household work at Mount Vernon. So, it's no surprise, when Washington moved to Philadelphia as America's first president he brought nine black household slaves with him.

After more than eight years of planning and construction a replica (architectural echo) of what the President's House might have resembled is now complete. It opened to visitors on Dec. 10. It is located on the actual footprint of the original house immediately next to the Liberty Bell pavilion on Independence Mall. Significantly, it tells the story of the nine slaves who lived there (in extremely tight quarters) with the president and his family.

"Finally, the public will get to weigh in," said Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph's University, on whether the memorial has found the right balance in evoking two presidents and commemorating nine slaves.

Clay Armbrister, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, called the site virtually iconic at birth.

"The installation in and of itself will do what educational exhibitions are meant to do: provoke thought and debate. I think there will be a lot of thought and debate," he said.

The President's House structure defines the small piece of ground at Sixth and Market streets, Philadelphia, where George Washington and John Adams lived, but also focuses on the enslaved Africans held by Washington at the house.

"The exhibit really brings to the fore this dichotomy in our country of freedom and slavery," said Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park. "The Declaration of Independence at that time did not mean everyone. It took the Civil War to abolish slavery, and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s to make civil rights more of a reality in addition to freedom."

"It was a piece of history that needed to be on the table. We needed to tell the truth," said Joyce Wilkerson, who was former Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street's chief of staff when the city committed the initial $1.5 million to the project in 2003.

"We have this Disneyland view of how the country came to be founded that just isn't true. This country was built on the backs of workers who were enslaved. It was built on the backs of Native Americans, who were exterminated. It's not pretty. It's not a pretty history. Part of the achievement is to acknowledge that," Wilkerson said.

The President's House is the first (and only) federal commemoration of enslaved Africans. The stories of the nine kept here by Washington are told in short videos on screens throughout the site, in traditional text displays, and on painted glass panels. Oney Judge, Christopher Sheels, Joe, Giles, Hercules, Paris, Moll, Richmond, Austin, the nine identified as working in the house, are symbolic stand-ins for all Africans entrapped by slavery in America.

Learn more about The President's House at the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/inde/historyculture/the-presidents-house. Also view www.visitphilly.com for more information about the city and its historic attractions.

 

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