Hercules, the enslaved chef of George Washington who slipped from the bonds of slavery 213 years ago on Monday, is again at the center of a massive search — this time the search for truth.
“Clearly Hercules was a hero,” said Michael Coard at a small celebration of what Coard called Freedom Day held at the President’s House historical site early Monday afternoon. “Exactly 213 years ago from this very day [Hercules] escaped and that’s a courageous thing.”
The date of his escape was an ironic twist of history.
Feb. 22 has long been remembered in American history as the birthday of George Washington.
But, for African Americans the date has a different significance — it was also the date that Hercules, also an American hero, long unsung, ran to freedom.
“Everybody knows George Washington’s birthday is today, but we celebrate it as Freedom Day for one of the 316 Black people he enslaved,” Coard said.
For hundreds of years the details of Hercules’ escape were obscured by history.
It was thought that he escaped from Philadelphia. Historians assumed that because evading capture would have been easier in Pennsylvania, a state with many abolitionists who would have been willing to help, Hercules fled from the city while working as Washington’s chef.
New findings show that he escaped from Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia, a much more difficult task. Those findings also pinpointed the date he fled — Feb. 22, Washington’s 65th birthday.
Hercules was just one of 316 slaves that Washington owned at the time. Most were kept in Virginia working on one of the five farms that made up his 8,000-acre plantation. Nine were brought to Philadelphia where Washington was living as the nation’s first president. Pennsylvania law made holding slaves within the state for longer than six months illegal. To avoid the law the president rotated his slaves between the mansion he occupied at the corner of Sixth and Market streets and Mount Vernon. As state law evolved to prohibit the owning of any slaves in Pennsylvania, Washington claimed that, as the nation’s chief executive, who was forced to live in Philadelphia, he was exempt from the law. The slaves rotated to work at the President’s House remained slaves despite the law.
Hercules was not the first of Washington’s slaves to escape.
Oney Judge, a maid to Martha Washington, escaped a year before Hercules, escaping to New Hampshire where she lived until her death at 75.
Much less is known about Hercules, though he was celebrated in his day. He was famous as the president’s chef and for the silk clothes he wore while promenading through the streets of Philadelphia and for a portrait painted of him, a rarity among slaves. Though he was famous in Philadelphia, at Mount Vernon, Hercules was just another slave.
In recent research, several historians found that he was working at Mount Vernon digging clay to make bricks when he decided to escape. Hercules vanished after his escape, evading recapture for the rest of his life. Unlike Judge, he was never heard from again. Coard speculated that he left the country after fleeing Mount Vernon. As a celebrated chef and fugitive from the president, staying the United States would have been nearly impossible.
For Coard recognizing Hercules was a very personal responsibility, a nod to the “people who look like me and made this country great.”
The ceremony attracted about 20 people, many — but not all — Black.
Orien Reid Nix was among them. She came from her suburban Philadelphia home to honor Hercules because of a deep need to hear the story of her people, she said. For her, the story of Hercules was not an abstract lesson in history.
“I’m only two generations away from slavery,” she said, adding that the history books largely ignore the history of African Americans. “We’ve had to rely on family stories.”
More research on people like Hercules only proves what Nix said she has always known.
“We’re really survivors of the best of the very best,” she said. “We’re a strong people who survived so much.”
Coard, who serves on the committee overseeing the development of the President’s House, said the museum is slated to open next fall.