PHILADELPHIA — They were nine Americans whose contribution to the formative days of the nation may forever have been forgotten.
On this Fourth of July, through a captivating archaeological dig taking place steps away from the pavilion exhibiting the Liberty Bell, their story is unfolding as Philadelphians and visitors to the seat of American independence come to grips with a largely unknown chapter of their history.
The nine were slaves whose master was the first president of the United States, George Washington. Evidence now suggests that while serving as president in Philadelphia, a city hostile to slavery, Washington skirted Pennsylvania law to keep these servants enslaved as his family's property.
Results from the dig show the nine lived behind-the-scenes lives serving their master and the new nation. The evidence has quickly become something of an "inconvenient truth" for the City of Brotherly Love and for Americans schooled in the principles of liberty. It has brought new passions to a debate as old as the nation — the issue of racial equality.
Along with white indentured and other servants, the slaves worked for Washington and his wife, Martha, as the couple lived in what is called the President's House, a three-story residence used by Washington and his successor, John Adams, who did not own slaves.
The house, built from 1767 to 1769, served as the executive mansion from 1790 to 1800, before Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved to Washington. It included an opulent State Dining Room, a room where Washington held "levees" to meet the public and a small room that was the predecessor to the Oval Office. It was here that the Cabinet met, foreign emissaries were received and important bills such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed escaped slaves to be hunted down in free states, were signed into law by Washington.
Two of the nine slaves eventually escaped — Oney Judge, a servant to Martha Washington, and Hercules, the family's chef.
The site included slave and servant quarters, a wash house, ice house and stables. Much of the home came down in 1832, although some of its walls stood until 1951 when they were torn down to make way for Independence Mall.
Until recently, this "first White House" stood in history's deepest shadows.
But now, all that has changed. The discovery last month of a subterranean passageway has been seized upon as proof that the slaves were hidden from house guests as they went about their daily chores from the main house to slave quarters in back. The passageway existed before Washington took residence.
"This is buried history. Now that it's unburied, a lot of folks want to make the most of it," said historian Gary Nash.
The suddenly visible record raises questions about why historians have glossed over Washington's Philadelphia slaves. Despite the many biographies on Washington, little has been written about the subject, said historian Edward Lawler Jr. and Nash. Lawler has extensively researched the house for the Independence Hall Association, and Nash, a University of California Los Angeles history professor emeritus, has been a leader in bringing the story to light.
"Washington kept his slaves out of sight," Nash said. "There are no first-person accounts of visitors mentioning enslaved Africans. They were cooks, stable hands, maids for private quarters and served private meals."
For the National Park Service, which presents the story of America's founding at several Philadelphia shrines, the slaves have become a front-and-center issue. It calls their lives in bondage a "long-obscured story."
Along with the city of Philadelphia, the park service is re-evaluating an architectural firm's design for a $5.2 million permanent exhibition at the site on the history of the house.
The project, which had been slated to open in 2009, was well under way when the passageway and other unexpected architectural elements were revealed.
Many now say that findings from the dig need to be incorporated in the presentation.
"No decisions have been made. We're taking comments from the public and visitors. We're going to consider how to do that — how do we best tell the story," said Jane Cowley, spokeswoman for the Independence National Historical Park.
Meanwhile, the home's exposed foundations and privy shafts have become a must-see for visitors to the nearby Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed.
Tourists who stand in line to see the Liberty Bell can't miss the ongoing dig. The work began in March and has been extended through the end of this month. Eventually, the excavation will either have to be filled in or protected from the elements.
For now, the Park Service has erected a viewing platform, and a nearby location lets visitors examine some of the artifacts that have been found.
This juxtaposition of freedom — as signified by the Liberty Bell — and slavery is a chasm that many find hard to bridge.
"As you enter the Liberty Bell Center, a mere five feet away you're standing on the quarters of slaves," said Michael Coard, a leader in the effort to bring the slaves' story to light.
"That's the height of historical hypocrisy," said Coard, who is black.
"I'm a lawyer; we're taught to be objective, clinical. But when I began to find out the story, I felt cheated and lied to. I was angry. I knew about the slaves at Mount Vernon (Washington's Virginia plantation), but was shocked that a president would have black folks as slaves in what is in effect America's first White House," he said.
Through his group, the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, and the help of scholars and politicians including Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, Coard is working with the Park Service to present the story. Yesterday, Coard's group held a mock funeral service for the nine slaves near the site.
The planned design will allow visitors to move through "a ghost of the building" at street levels as the story of "momentous decisions, heart-rending conversations and passing details of everyday life and work" is presented.
Coard wants to include findings from the dig, and perhaps a glass floor showing the passageway, into the outdoor presentation being developed by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners of Philadelphia.
"I view this as the most important historical site in America, because it's the only place where white freedom and black slavery exist side-by-side," Coard said.
He also wants to emphasize a finding by some historians that Washington's holding of slaves was a violation of Pennsylvania law. If they were deemed residents of the state for more than six months, they could have gained their freedom.
"He was careful that neither he nor his slaves spent the six continuous months necessary to establish legal residency," Lawler said. Instead, Washington rotated the servants back and forth from his Virginia plantation, a ploy that also was illegal.
In 1791, Lawler said, Washington violated the law "by bringing into Pennsylvania enslaved Africans who had been transported out of state to prevent their obtaining their freedom." He said Washington used this device until the end of his presidency.
As visitors view the dig, Coard said he is intrigued by the discussion he hears.
"Every time I go down to the platform, I watch and listen to the white and the black people," he said. "The white people seem defensive and apologetic. The blacks seem angry, then emboldened and proud. Then I see the two groups interact, talking about what they've seen."
As for books that ignore Washington's Philadelphia slave-holding years, Coard said, "There's going to be a lot of Wite-Out used in the textbooks of America.
"This reminds me of the Founding Fathers," he said. "Didn't they say something about 'To form a more perfect union'?"