On Wednesday (March 7th at 10AM) Radio Times hosts a conversation about the recently-announced design selected for the President’s House site on Independence Mall. Architect Emanuel Kelly and advocate Michael Coard are slated to be Marty Moss-Coane’s guests.
You may recall the story. When George and Martha Washington lived in Philadelphia they brought enslaved Africans from Virginia with them. We recently produced a short video presenting the facts and posing the question: How would Independence National Historical Park interpret this long-buried chapter of history?
Our interest in the subject goes back to Y2K, when we read a draft of Ed Lawler’s paper later published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. “The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark” is a remarkable and important essay. It actually played down the slavery story. Footnote #65 informed us, for the first time, about the enslaved Africans who had been forgotten to history: Christopher Sheels (Washington’s body servant), Moll (Mrs. Washington’s maid), Austin (a stablehand and/or waiter), Hercules (the cook), Richmond (a scullion), Paris and Giles (stablehands and postilions) and Oney Judge (Mrs. Washington’s body servant). Their profiles, as well as that of stablehand Joe Richardson, later also identified by Lawler, can be found on the website of the Independence Hall Association, which tracked the story over the years.
How last week’s announcement came to pass is an illustration of community energy leveraged by access to the facts. Every communications tool was at work here: radio, internet, television, newspapers, magazines scholarly journals and public conversation - but the internet was, by far, the most effective. Doug Heller should win an award for his work on that website - it made the difference. For evidence of impact, see the extensive set of collected news stories.
WHYY’s 91FM News was the first to report the story back in November, 2001. You can listen to Mhari Saito’s and other reports, as well as early Radio Times coverage, on our long-outdated web page. That was months before The Philadelphia Inquirer ran with Stephan Salisbury and Inga Saffron’s story Echoes of Slavery at Liberty Bell Site across the top of the front page of a Sunday edition on March 24, 2002.
That was news. The rest, as they say, is history.