In Philadelphia on Wednesday, a new memorial opened on the site where an earlier White House once stood. President George Washington ran the country from a Colonial mansion on what is now Independence Mall. The building is long gone, but digging up the house's foundation stirred up the history of racism in America.
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In Philadelphia today, a new memorial opened at another White House. President George Washington once ran the country from a Colonial mansion on what is now Independence Mall.
The building is long gone, but Peter Crimmins of member station WHYY reports that digging up its foundation renewed a debate about racism as old as the country itself.
PETER CRIMMINS: It was no secret that the first presidential house used to be here at 6th & Market Streets, but no one knew what to do with the site. In 2002, a local historian noticed that visitors standing in line to see the Liberty Bell literally stepped over the space where George Washington housed his slaves. And that was just too rich a package to pass up.
Here, the birth of the nation shares exactly the same spot with the shame of the nation. As the National Park Service contracted an architect to design a memorial, African-American activists and academic historians lined up to fight for the right to tell American history the way each saw fit.
Mr. MICHAEL COARD (Lawyer): Everything that we were taught in school about George Washington has been turned on its head at this site.
CRIMMINS: Attorney and activist Michael Coard pressed the National Park Service to make as plain as possible the fact that the first president owned nine slaves here at the presidential house and over 300 at his property in Virginia.
Mr. COARD: The question we pose is this: Can you be a great human being when you hold 316 other human beings in brutal bondage as slaves?
CRIMMINS: History professor Randall Miller is part of an association of academics that pushed for greater historical accuracy.
Professor RANDALL Miller (History, Saint Joseph's University): There's no question that slavery is going to be the centerpiece of that. People could argue about what they call balance, the extent to which that story should dominate any other story related to the place and the people et cetera. But race ran underneath it, and that always makes for a volatile cocktail.
CRIMMINS: The argument over what to do with the site raged for eight years. Caught in the middle was Roz McPherson, the project director, who says it ran along racial lines.
Ms. ROZ McPHERSON (Project Director, President's House): You had African-Americans who felt that it was time for us to be more open and honest about enslavement, and then you had the other side of the spectrum who felt that by bringing up George Washington's slaves that we were denigrating the memory and honor of George Washington.
CRIMMINS: The result is a house that's not really a house.
Partial brick walls were built to suggest the President's House layout. It's open to the sky and the street. There are no doors, no windows, no roof. Video displays playback stories about the nine slaves that worked in the house, and their names are carved into a granite wall, not unlike a war memorial.
Many of the activists, including Michael Coard, chalk this up as a victory. But Seth Bruggeman says it's not that simple. He teaches history at Temple University and says the story of race in America is a mishmash of privilege, class and wealth, not a standoff between white master and black slave.
Professor SETH BRUGGEMAN (History, Temple University): We know that the history of race relations is really one that unfolds on a spectrum of relative freedoms. To limit our conversation to black-white, slave-free dichotomy is really limiting, I think, and it's not accurate.
CRIMMINS: The site proved popular even before it opened. As it was being excavated in the summer of 2009, when it was nothing but a hole in the ground exposing the stone foundations of the original house, over 300,000 people stopped to take a look. Some, reportedly, moved to tears.
For NPR news, I'm Peter Crimmins in Philadelphia.