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Rethinking American History (Letter to the Editor)
There is a lot of confusion about George Washington and the eight enslaved Africans who worked in the President's House. Some clarifications regarding your recent article ("Telling the Untold Story," Fall 2003):
- It was not against the law for Washington to bring the eight enslaved Africans to Philadelphia. The President was a legal resident of Virginia, and took care not to establish residency in Pennsylvania. Had the eight established an uninterrupted six-month residency here and then registered with the state, those age 28 and older would have been immediately freed, and those under 28 would have had their legal status changed from "slave" to "indentured servant" and been free on their 28th birthdays. To prevent this from happening, Washington rotated the eight back to Virginia. This may have been devious, but it was not illegal. And, at a time when Massachusetts and Vermont were the only states to have truly abolished slavery, this practice rotating one's personal slaves out of Pennsylvania just before the six-month deadline to prevent them from legally attaining their freedom may have been widespread among the slaveholding officers of the federal government.
- The proposed 1794 amendment exempting all officers of the federal government from Pennsylvania's 1780 Gradual Abolition Act never passed the state legislature.
- Washington instructed that the three black men who worked in the stable Giles, Paris and Austin be housed in an outbuilding between the kitchen and stable; that the other three black men Hercules, Richmond and Christopher Sheels-be housed in the attic of the main house; and that the two black women Moll and Oney Judge sleep in a divided room over the kitchen with Martha Washington's grandchildren. There is no evidence that the outbuilding ever housed all eight enslaved Africans.
- Most of the President's House was torn down in 1832, but its east and west walls survived as party walls shared with the adjoining buildings. These original walls were unknowingly demolished in 1951during the creation of Independence Mall.
- The archaeological excavations at the President's House site were not done by me, but by John Milner Associates. No foundations of the stable or slave quarters, nor any artifacts related to the eight enslaved Africans were found.
- The proposed design for the President's House site was unveiled at a public meeting on January 15, 2003. It includes a full-sized outline in the paving of the main house, kitchen and servants (dining) hall, but it does NOT include the slave quarters! The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor made this same mistake, erroneously assuming that the slave quarters would be marked. The Independence Hall Association, the Ad Hoc Historians, and the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition consider the proposed design's omission of the slave quarters an attempt to erase the true history of the site. The slave quarters should be outlined in the paving with the rest of the house, exactly as they are shown on the 1785 map of the property. And they should be interpreted by Independence Park so that every visitor to the site understands the juxtaposition of the free and unfree in what was the Executive Mansion of the United States.
Further information and biographical sketches of the eight enslaved Africans can found at www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse