It might have taken 10 years for the federal government to recognize the hidden history of the slaves that were kept at the site where the President’s House is commemorated by an open-air museum but the reality is that it has taken more than 200 years.
City officials and community leaders officially opened the long-awaited President’s House this week with the appropriate fanfare and emotional commentary.
The site, which commemorates the location where America’s first and second presidents resided, has been a focal point of controversy because of the fact that George Washington maintained nine African slaves there.
“The issue of slavery remains a problem for us in America. During the construction there were people who contended that the site is too much about slavery and there were people who contend that we didn’t do more about the horrors of slavery,” said project director Rosalyn McPherson.
The commemorative site tells the story of America’s beginnings and the at least nine enslaved Black Americans who toiled at the house during Washington’s presidency.
The site is adjacent to the entrance of the Liberty Bell Pavilion and features archeological structural remains, an interpretative multimedia exhibit and a granite wall with the names of the nine documented slaves.
“You really can’t talk about the making of this nation without talking about slavery. This is an incredible opportunity to tell that story,” said Mayor Michael Nutter. “We still struggle with this issue and this site shows the contradiction inherent in the birth of our nation, in the same house you had freedom and slavery.”
The City of Philadelphia formed the President’s House Oversight Committee in September 2005 to guide the project’s development.
Apparently, according to the papers and documents left by President Washington, there were nine African slaves kept in residence at the site during his presidency.
Their names were Moll, Oney Judge, Austin, Hercules, Paris, Giles, Richmond, Joe Richardson and Christopher Sheels.
Historians believe that, because of the law in Pennsylvania at the time mandating that any slave brought into the state had to be freed within six months, Washington would stay in Philadelphia just under that length of time and then return to his ancestral home in Mount Vernon.
According to historical documents, Oney Judge escaped and left Philadelphia in either May or June 1796. She died in Greenland, New Hampshire in February 1848. Hercules escaped slavery form Mt. Vernon in February 1797. There was a reported sighting of him living in New York in 1801.
Criminal defense attorney and community activist Michael Coard, who is a member of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, has been instrumental in the creation of the site. Coard said there were several obstacles that had to be overcome before the truth of what happened at the President’s House could be told. The first challenge was the unwillingness of the Independence National Historic Park and the National Park Service to come to terms with the hidden truth that slaves lived and worked there.
“Back in 2002 when our organization ATAC was founded, this was a dream,” Coard said. “How do I feel about this? I am absolutely ecstatic. You’re never going to have everything you want but this is a great step forward. There are some vocal white folks who have been saying that the project has become too Black and what they are saying is that this was supposed to be a president’s house project with a slavery memory component — but in their view it’s flipped into a slavery memorial project with a president’s house component.”
Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park said the President’s House project is an evolving educational effort that shows the real controversy within the creation of the United States.
“John Adams, our second president, was known for his anti-slavery views. He didn’t own slaves,” she said. “But did he do anything to stop it? No. This project has generated conversation and discovery, and we hope it will continue to do so.”
Mayor Nutter said the site’s true value is evident when considering that despite the horrors of chattel slavery, African Americans have risen to the highest offices in the nation.
“Slavery was an evil, despicable practice. But today this city has a Black mayor. We have our first Black president,” he said. “This [commemoration] reminds us of where we come from.”