President’s House pays tribute to slaves
Some have called it a “house of horrors.” Others, a “house of bondage.” And still others simply see it as “The President’s Executive House.”
Which was it?
With Independence Day upon us and memories of George Washington and the Founding Fathers once again in the air, questions about recently unearthed aspects of the President’s House at Sixth and Market streets have become pressing.
Who were the nine slaves reported to have lived in the house with Washington during the period when Philadelphia served as the country’s capital beginning in 1790? What were the circumstances?
A memorial to the house was to have been unveiled on Independence Day. But the concept of a memorial to the house seems to have been a kind of a racial Rorschach test. It appears to have conjured up different images depending on whether it was whites or Blacks viewing it.
It is unclear whether such differences caused the postponement of the July 4 unveiling to sometime in November.
According to one organizer, Michael Coard, the event is on schedule.
“The unveiling of the President’s House/Slavery Memorial project was initially scheduled to take place on July 4, 2010. But the Mayor’s Oversight Committee — of which I’m a member — decided to expand the project in terms of more culturally inclusive interpretations — i.e., necessarily stronger words and images — to complement the previously approved and thoroughly impressive architectural design. Accordingly, the grand opening is now set for early November 2010.”
This year, at the same site to which President George Washington transported nine of his 316 slaves from Virginia, a special “Emancipation Proclamation 2010” ceremony will be held to ceremonially free those nine, none of whom was ever freed by Washington in his lifetime.
Ironically, the location of the slave site is at the site of the new Liberty Bell Center at Sixth and Market.
Controversy has dogged the memorial that is to be laid at the site.
At a raucous public meeting in May, critics denounced one version of the memorial.
Critics at that meeting said the design did not portray the harsh realities of slavery in Philadelphia.
Others complained that a white-owned general contractor was used at the site instead of a non-white firm.
“When we started, we wanted a commemoration for the enslaved,” said Sacaree Rhodes, one of close to 50 who attended, according to a May 8 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We didn’t want no house!”
Originally the edifice, the Robert Morris House, torn down in 1831, was just another house. But the allegations, the lies, the hypocrisies and the myths entangling it seemed to transform it into some kind of House of Seven Gables for some.
The bondage there, rather than the freedom, seemed difficult for some to stomach.
Most of the slaves who lived there during the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, were Washington’s personal slaves. According to sources, the slaves with the exception of one or two like Hercules were light-skinned “mulattos,” reported to be children of the sexual intermingling of slave and master under still-murky circumstances.
According to historian Charles Blockson, emeritus director of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University, the house may have had as many as two children [not necessarily among the nine]. Some Blacks are claiming to be descendants.
They say George Washington fathered a son with a young slave, Venus, who lived on the estate of his half brother John Augustine Washington.
Three descendants of Venus’s son, who was called West Ford, say that according to a family tradition two centuries old, George Washington was West Ford’s father. They have expressed the hope of developing DNA evidence from descendants of the Washington family and Washington’s hair samples to bolster their case.
Martha Washington was reported to have a number of relatives among slaves at Mount Vernon — though likewise none amid the nine.
One historian, Henry Wiencek, in a 2004 book, claimed that Martha Washington owned her own mulatto half-sister, a slave named Ann Dandridge, who had a child by Martha’s son, John Parke “Jack” Custis.
Such blood connections made it even more difficult to live by simple rules or regulations governing slaves and freemen.
The site has been the witness to the spectacle of champions of freedom like Washington, on one hand, calling for freedom for all mankind while at the same time dispatching agents to enslave Africans who had escaped from bondage at the house.
Hypocrisy apparently was part and parcel of the American republic’s birth and growth.
Thomas Jefferson, well known for his own miscegenation, led the boycott of Haiti after Haitians won their independence from France a few years after the American Revolution. Some say that embargo spread and led to the impoverishment of what was the Black twin of the American Revolution.
At the President’s House, Black freedom was likewise quashed. Washington’s house must not have been a pleasant place for slaves to work, surrounded as it was by prevailing abolitionists’ sentiments as well as a fairly sizable number of free Blacks.
At least two of Washington’s nine slaves who frequented the Philadelphia house made good their escapes. Two others attempted unsuccessfully. For those who escaped, the Fourth of July is an ironic independence celebration — independence from George Washington and his white version of freedom.
For their part the slaves seemed to love their liberty as much as their masters, risking their lives to pursue their freedom to escape.
And Washington was a relentless pursuer who employed agents to hunt down his slaves.
Most of Washington’s Philadelphia slaves were part of Martha’s dowry.
Washington would have had to reimburse his wife’s estate if they were freed or escaped. This remained one excuse Washington could use for not living by his avowed “repugnance” for slavery.
Even at Mount Vernon most of the over 300 slaves were “dower” slaves [part of Martha’s dowry].
They were given their liberty only in Washington’s will.
To hold on to their slaves even in abolitionist Pennsylvania, the Washingtons illegally circumvented a Pennsylvania law, the Gradual Abolition Act — which allowed citizens of other states to hold slaves only six months before the slaves could claim their freedom.
The Washingtons regularly and illegally shuttled their slaves across state lines before the deadline expired, thus resetting their residency at zero.
Hypocrisy once again raised its ugly head when, Blockson tells us that while violating this Pennsylvania law, Washington simultaneously signed into federal law the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave, even if the slave was in a free state.
According to Coard of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), the planned memorial under construction for this house to be unveiled in November exhibits the deficiencies as well as the strengths of the nation’s birth.
Most if not all of Philadelphia's local, state and federal elected officials are expected to attend this historic grand opening.
“If the project is controversial,” said Coard, “it should be because slavery was controversial and obviously much more so. Also, controversy can be cathartic. In connection with that, the meaning of this ‘controversial’ project, at least from ATAC’s standpoint, is to finally tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about American history.”
He added: “For whites, it will finally force them to face the demon of past slavery and its present effect. It will also show them that enslaved Africans and enslaved African descendants deserve as much credit for building this country — if not more credit than — as the Founding Fathers do.
“After all, it was the millions of enslaved Black folks who labored 24/7 for 246 years from 1619-1865 without pay for the benefit of America.
“For Blacks, it will finally instill the pride of knowing that their ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears yesterday are the direct and most important cause of America’s greatness today.”
Washington’s slaves included: Molly, Richmond, Austin, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, Joe (Richardson), Oney Judge and Hercules. Records of their existence are scant — no graveside markers, no memorials and no birth or death certificates.
Even so, they must have been extremely competent since they were proudly used by Washington to fete generals, ambassadors and other dignitaries.
A Black free man, Samuel Fraunces, oversaw the entire house, which included the Black slaves as well as white servants. One white chef, according to an online source, is said to have quit his job rather than work for Fraunces.
For slaves in general, dependence on their masters frequently prevented them from even contemplating escape.
The slave Molly is said to have spent her entire life serving the Washingtons.
She came to Mount Vernon shortly after the Washingtons married in 1759. She is said to have been the nanny for Martha Washington’s son and daughter, and later, her grandchildren.
Born circa 1739, she was about 51 when brought to Philadelphia. She was returned to Mount Vernon in 1797.
Two of the most well-known slaves were Hercules and Oney Judge, both of whom successfully escaped.
Hercules, Washington’s famous chef and Philadelphia fop and man-about-town, was born in 1754, making him 36 years old when brought to Philadelphia. He was a “thoroughly impressive chief cook” who married Alice, an enslaved seamstress at Mount Vernon.
Together, they had three children, including Richmond.
After Alice died in 1787, Hercules alone raised those children and probably had a fourth child later.
Despite his renowned culinary talents and his “prominent” status in the president’s household, Hercules might have reacted to being mere property to Washington despite being given freedom by Washington to roam the streets of Philadelphia on occasion. He escaped from Washington’s grasp on Washington’s 65th birthday — February 22, 1797 — while at Mount Vernon and remained free at some unknown location until his death.
Oney Judge, born around 1773, was the other Philadelphia slave who escaped. She was the younger half sister of Austin.
She was a needlework expert and Martha’s personal servant. She was about 17 when she was brought to Philadelphia in November 1790. She discovered she was to be given, as a wedding gift, by Martha to Martha’s eldest granddaughter.
With the active help of Philadelphia’s fairly large free Black population, Oney plotted her escape.
She left on May 21, 1796, going from Pennsylvania, then apparently through New York, and ultimately settling in New Hampshire.
Although Oney’s escape was successful and permanent, a relentless Washington kept after her reportedly as a result of Martha, who was almost unyielding in trying to track down and capture her.
Oney nonetheless married and had three children and lived free until her death at about 75.
Richmond, the son of Hercules, tried unsuccessfully to escape.
Richmond, born in 1776, was the son of Hercules and Alice. He had two sisters and possibly a stepsibling.
After being brought to Philadelphia at age 14, he was forced into the backbreaking labor of a scullion and a chimney sweep.
Three months before his father’s great escape, he apparently had his own escape plan.
It was foiled.
Christopher Sheels’ escape plans were also disrupted. He was born circa 1774 and was approximately 16 when brought to Philadelphia.
He apparently was literate because, sometime in or about September 1799 at Mount Vernon, an enslaved woman from another plantation, wrote him a note regarding an escape plan.
Unfortunately, Washington intercepted that note and broke up the plan.
Austin, one of the slaves who were not known to have attempted escape, was born between 1757-1759, according to biographies of Washington.
Austin was approximately 32-years-old when brought to Philadelphia and was about 15 years older than his half sister Oney Judge. He was married to Charlotte, an enslaved seamstress, with whom he had five children.
He worked as a waiter, carriage footman and probably stable worker who likely lived in slave quarters with two additional transported enslaved Black laborers, namely Giles and Paris, and probably another person. He died on December 20, 1794, at around 36 years old in Harford, Md.
Giles, born around 1758, was approximately 32-years-old and served as a carriage worker and driver when brought to Philadelphia. He apparently was housed in slave quarters with Austin, Paris and probably another person.
Joe (Richardson), also known as “Postilion Joe,” was born probably in 1769 and married Sall, a Mount Vernon enslaved seamstress. Together they had at least seven children. He was an approximately 26-year-old presidential coach footman and stable worker when brought to Philadelphia on or about on Oct. 20, 1795, which was five years after the other eight.
Paris, born approximately 1774, was a stable worker at the Mount Vernon plantation and later. When brought to Philadelphia around the age of 16, was housed in slave quarters with Austin, Giles and probably another person. After being taken back to Mount Vernon in June of 1791, he died there sometime around October 1794.