Tug of war with slavery history and Washington's
With an important deadline looming, philosophical and racial differences have divided the committee charged with overseeing the development of the President’s House memorial.
“It’s shaping up as a true battle,” said Karen Warrington, who serves on the eight-person oversight committee.
On one side of the divide are those who want the memorial on Independence Mall to focus on commemorating the African-American slaves once forced to live and work there. On the other are those who argue that those slaves represent a portion of the story at the site, but would prefer exhibits with a broader context and great deal of focus on Presidents George Washington and John Adams, both of whom lived in the house.
“The difficult part is going to be finding the balance,” said Edward Lawler, a historian who also sits on the committee and who first published accounts of slaves living at the President’s House.
Disagreements have plagued the project since its inception, but the planning stage of the memorial is supposed to be winding down. Mayor Michael Nutter and officials with the National Park Service are expected to give their stamp of approval for the memorial and its exhibits by the end of December. Hopes are the memorial can be opened by July 4.
This particular dispute, which involves the planning of exhibits at the memorial, centers on how American history should be told.
“The issue is interpretation ... any issue of race in America people see it through their own particular lens,” Warrington said.
Everyone agrees that telling the story of the slaves who lived and worked at the home is vital.
“It’s not widely understood, within the white community, how much this story has not been told,” Lawler said.
For Warrington, that story offers an opportunity to shine the light on the ugly truth of slavery in a way that hasn’t been done before, especially in Philadelphia.
“American history has not represented the true story of the enslavement of Black people and whole notion of freedom,” she said. “They’ve kind of sanitized the telling of slavery.”
The traditional telling of American history has not included the real story of slavery, Warrington said, a brutal, barbaric story that included human trafficking, kidnapping, forced labor, sexual and other kinds of abuse that were later whitewashed in the retelling until the facts were lost or distorted beyond recognition.
“People have spent their whole life embracing a story that is not inclusive. We need to start to see the story through clearer eyes,” she said. “It’s difficult, but we have to start somewhere. This is one of the few times that Black people have really had an opportunity to impact history.”
Lawler worried that if the exhibits were too centered on the portrayal of slavery, it would deter visitors.
“It should be a site for learning and for healing,” he said. “I’d like this to be non-accusatory, not in your face. Yes, we’re talking about slavery — it is so ugly. You’ll lose your audience, and I think there is a great audience of people who are potentially sympathetic (but) if it’s too ugly, if it’s too in your face ... Yeah, it probably is revisionist history, but we’re talking about a subject that none of the general public knows much about. How do you get them interested? Coming on too strong is just going to alienate people rather than intrigue them.”
For Lawler, the fact that Washington lived in the house complicated matters.
“I wish this wasn’t the President’s House ... because then the focus could just be on the Liberty Bell and what it meant and on freedom — meaning the triumph over slavery,” he said.
But because the home was home to the nation’s first president, it has a larger significance.
“Washington’s presidency is interpreted nowhere else within the National Park Service,” he said. “True history is 10 years of the presidency — there is 10 years of the presidency that can only be interpreted at this place.”
Pennsylvania law at the time did not allow slavery, but it did allow non-residents to bring their slaves into the state. However, if they remained here more than six months, they were freed. To avoid that law, Washington rotated his slaves, moving them from Philadelphia to Virginia for periods just under six months.
There is no way for Warrington to sugarcoat that fact.
“These people wanted to leave,” she said of the nine slaves that Washington kept on the site.
The debate has evoked strong emotion on both sides. That has always been the case with slavery and race, she said.
Perhaps now is the time to address both issues head on.
“We really haven’t delved into all the ramifications and the continuing ramifications of that,” she said. “And if I can be one small part of tearing the covers off some of that story so that subsequent generations Black, white, whatever can start to see what really happened and how we can go forward than I will fight kick and scream to be part of that.”