Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: The Sentinel Online
Date: June 7, 2007
Byline: Rubina Madan / AP

Slave passageway found at Washington house may alter exhibit plan

PHILADELPHIA — Archaeologists unearthing the buried remains of George Washington's presidential home have discovered a hidden passageway and other ruins, still intact, used by his nine slaves.

The findings have created a quandary for National Park Service and city officials planning an exhibit on the site, which is steps from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The officials are now trying to decide whether to incorporate the remains — which powerfully show freedom and slavery side by side — into the exhibit or go forward with plans to fill in the ruins and build an abstract display detailing life in the house.

Whatever decision is made, a dramatic story waits to be told, said Michael Coard, a Philadelphia attorney who leads a group that worked to have slavery recognized at the site.

"As you enter the heaven of liberty, you literally have to cross the hell of slavery," Coard said. "That's the contrast, that's the contradiction, that's the hypocrisy. But that's also the truth."

Archaeologists uncovered an underground passageway where slaves slipped in and out of the main house, so they wouldn't be seen by Washington's guests. They found remnants of a bow window, an architectural precursor to the White House's Oval Office. Other discoveries include a large basement that was never noted in historic records.

"We actually found a lot more of the remains of the President's House than anyone expected. Myself included," said Jed Levin, an archaeologist with the National Park Service.

Thousands of visitors have been drawn to the ruins, standing on a small wooden platform to gaze down at the house's brick and stone foundation.

Being able to see archaeologists exploring the remains offers people an interactive view of history, both positive and negative, said National Historical Park Superintendent Dennis Reidenbach.

"I think it's clear that different people learn with different means and methods. But we always maintain that original artifacts and original features are things people find very, very compelling," he said.

An oversight committee has been meeting to discuss how to incorporate the findings from the dig into the memorial and whether the exhibit itself should be drastically altered.

The remains would crumble if left unprotected. If the design included elevators, ramps or stairs to move visitors down into the newly dug ruins, costs would rise significantly.

Figuring out what to do next will push back the building of the memorial, which was slated to open in 2009. While the archaeological excavation was supposed to end in May, public response to the discoveries spurred officials to extend it until at least July 4.

Joyce Wilkerson, the mayor's chief of staff, said the oversight committee didn't want to rush into construction.

"We never thought we'd be faced with this kind of decision," she said. "We would've been happy to have found a pipe! And so we don't want to proceed blindly or say, 'This isn't in the plan.'"

Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, a minority-owned firm based in Philadelphia, won the nationwide design competition to create the Washington House exhibit.

Their design includes a framework of the house, LED screens and other audiovisual elements explaining its history. Designers were planning to include the slaves' stories, but not any archaeological findings.

Coard was confident the oversight committee would come up with the best way to tell the slaves' stories, whether or not that meant burying the remains.

"Everybody's on board in terms of seriously considering incorporating the architectural dig into the design," Coard said. "The question now is: Is it doable? Nobody is saying, 'No, it shouldn't be done.'"

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady was so moved when he visited the memorial last week that he declared, "We need to rethink what we're doing here."

"It's astounding, absolutely astounding," Brady said. "I'm going to fight to keep it open, I'll tell you that much."

Archaeologists have served as guides, answering questions from the thousands of residents and tourists who have stopped by since the dig began in March. Cheryl LaRoche, a cultural heritage specialist, said she enjoys educating people about how even a prominent statesman like Washington could own slaves.

"We've been striving to present a balanced view of history that stands apart from what's been taught in history books," LaRoche said.

David Orr, an anthropology professor at Temple University, has visited the site at least four times. He posted a note on the President's House Web site urging officials to keep the ruins on display.

"It's just fantastic," Orr said. "I can't tell you enough how exciting it is. For years and years and years I've been trying to promote that kind of public archaeology."


Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more