While history happens every day, exhibits such as the newly opened President’s House in Philadelphia attempt to put the past into proper perspective.
And, as a rule, they are worth a visit.
An early de facto White House in pre-Washington, D.C. days of the 1790s, the President’s House was a home and an office for presidents George Washington and John Adams. While presidents met dignitaries in an elegant front room, the everyday tasks of a plantation owner — in the case of Washington — continued in the background.
Little of the structure has survived. But the spot was not completely forgotten for its historic value.
When a new building for display of the Liberty Bell opened nearby, critics called foul. Its entrance was only a short distance from where Washington quartered his slaves.
That’s right: Washington owned slaves. And he brought them to Philadelphia despite Pennsylvania laws that required a slave’s freedom after a period of time.
How might the Founding Fathers’ ringing demand for liberty be lauded in the 21st century if America’s enslavement of African-Americans remained lost in its shadow? The effort to excavate and create a museum of sorts at the site began in earnest in the mid-2000s. It opened to visitors this week.
Contradictory early American concepts of freedom and liberty are entwined at the site. Scholars know Washington owned slaves, and he did free them in his will after his wife’s death.
How Washington circumnavigated Pennsylvania’s laws remains a compelling history lesson. Further, how his slaves were kept separate from the front-of-the-house workings of the president now can be traced through unearthed passageways.
The stories of these individuals have been reclaimed and serve as the core of the new exhibit.
And while at least one critic has inveighed against the site’s lack of historical context, it does mean something to walk through this display and better picture the past. In the end, whether the President’s House’s exhibit handles its history well might be a judgment left up to the beholder.
The building’s re-emergence is a conversation starter about America’s first president, Philadelphia’s early African-American community and the persistence of slavery in the North. It’s a history lesson we are glad supporters decided to provide to us.