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Source: The New York Times
Date: July 4, 2007
Byline: Niko Koppel

A Country's Past Is Unearthed, and Comes Into Focus — New York Times

PHILADELPHIA, July 3 — On the stretch of land where the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Constitution drafted and the Liberty Bell first tolled, pre-Independence Day crowds peered from a wooden platform into a 10-foot-deep dirt hole that is revealing more complex notions of the nation's history. Skip to next paragraph Enlarge This Image Mike Mergen for The New York Times

Lovely Elysee, left, a field technician, sifting through rubble at the site. Enlarge This Image Private collection

The home was once the seat of the executive branch.

Digging through layers of soil, brick and mortar, archaeologists for the city and the National Park Service have exposed remains of a four-story brick and stone mansion that was home to George Washington and John Adams, and was the seat of the executive branch before the White House was finished.

Historians and community activists began demanding the excavation in 2002, after the site, which is adjacent to the Liberty Bell Center, was found to be above the mansion's living quarters for nine household slaves that Washington brought here from Mount Vernon. Thousands of people have visited since digging began in March, the makeshift observation deck atop the hole serving as a platform for reflection and dialogue on the nature and roots of liberty.

Nathan Buchanan, 25, a graduate student from Spruce Pine, N.C., said Tuesday that the excavation presented him with "the whole picture of history."

"It's a historical site that gives a voice to all the sides," he said.

Built from 1767 to 1769, the mansion, which stood at 190 High Street, was used by the British during the Revolutionary War and later leased to the city by Robert Morris, a financier who was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was there that Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, by which Congress ensured the right of owners to reclaim slaves as lost "property," and from there that Martha Washington's personal slave, Oney Judge, and the family's cook, Hercules, eventually fled to freedom. John Adams, who never owned slaves, lived in the house until he moved to Washington in 1800.

Many visitors to the site, a 60-by-90-foot hole on what is now Market Street, say it speaks to the complicated bond between freedom and slavery, crystallizing a debate about injustice that Americans continue to struggle with. "It challenges what people know and what they thought they knew about the country they live in," said Jed Levin, an archaeologist for the Park Service.

"It's up to us now to look at our own lives," said Tom Hill, 55, an accounting manager from Petersburg, Ky. "Someone may look back at us and say, 'How could those people have done that?' "

By the 1830s, all but part of a wall of the mansion had been razed. The site was later built upon, and in the 1950s, the ground was leveled for the landscaping of Independence Mall. The hole reveals a series of trenches, delineating rooms, where archaeologists translate their work for onlookers and describe discoveries. Among these were an underground passage through which slaves moved between the kitchen and the main house, and a bow window thought to have inspired the Oval Office of the White House.

Although the site has yielded few artifacts, it is fertile ground for historical reinterpretation. "It's a symbol of things that have not been valued in the past," said Edward Lawler, a historian with the Independence Hall Association.

Early efforts to end slavery in Pennsylvania resulted in the passage of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which allowed Washington, as a citizen of Virginia, to keep his slaves here for six months, at which point they were entitled to freedom. But Washington circumvented the Pennsylvania law, Mr. Lawler said, by rotating the slaves across state lines.

Cheryl Murray, 58, a retired Internal Revenue Service worker from Philadelphia, leaned against the railing above the hole on Tuesday. "Philly is the birthplace of freedom," Ms. Murray said, "but this part of history has not been told."

Her friend Mildred Bey, 54, who works for the Department of Defense, said, "People are taught to believe that slavery was down South but not here."

Two other Philadelphians, Bill Hempsey, 78, a retiree who is white, and Wayne Gibbons, 58, a doctor who is black, stood at the edge of the excavation, listening intently.

"It's part of history, and it's been underground," Mr. Hempsey remarked.

Dr. Gibbons said, "Truth buried will at some point rise," and added, "Independence Day is something to celebrate, but in the context of understanding the price paid for freedom."

The men, who had met for the first time only minutes earlier, ended their conversation shaking hands.

 

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