On the Record: The Enslaved at the President’s House Memorial
Philadelphia attorney and community activist Michael Coard is co founder of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC). The organization has fought tirelessly for recognition of the nine enslaved persons held in bondage by the man known by many around the world as the ‘father of his country’, George Washington.
Numerous scholars have uncovered extensive documentation during this project regarding the lives of the enslaved persons held by America’s first president.
During excavation for the President’s House memorial, in addition to those enslaved persons kept inside the house, it was determined some of the enslaved of African descent were housed in the stable area near the current location of the Liberty Bell Center.
Until the complete history of the brutality and indignities of chattel slavery, as practiced in the so called New World, are thoroughly exposed, there are many in the United States of America and the world who will continue to believe the nearly four centuries’ long enslavement of Africans and those of African descent in the Americas and various islands in the Caribbean was merely unfortunate people, working without wages when, tragically, it was so much more.
Between 1518 and 1870, the transatlantic slave trade supplied the greatest proportion of the Caribbean population. As sugarcane cultivation increased and spread from island to island--and to the neighboring mainland as well--more Africans were brought to replace those who died rapidly and easily under the rigorous demands of labor on the plantations, in the sugar factories, and in the mines.
Acquiring and transporting Africans to the New World became a big and extremely lucrative business. From a modest trickle in the early sixteenth century, the trade increased to an annual import rate of about 2,000 in 1600, 13,000 in 1700, and 55,000 in 1810. Between 1811 and 1870, about 32,000 slaves per year were imported. As with all trade, the operation fluctuated widely, affected by regular market factors of supply and demand as well as the irregular and often unexpected interruptions of international war.
Here is an excerpt from The Black Eye on George Washington’s White House, written by Michael Coard. The article can be found at the ATAC website:
While schoolchildren often were taught and sometimes still are taught about his wooden teeth, a story based on myth, they never were taught about his “slave” teeth, a story based on truth.
Notwithstanding that it was quite likely a dentist from Philadelphia made Washington’s first total set of normal dentures in 1789, the complete story is much more interesting or, better stated, much more disturbing.
Instead of, or in addition to, wooden teeth or standard dentures, Washington had teeth that actually were “yanked from the heads of his slaves and fitted into his dentures... [and also] apparently had slaves’ teeth transplanted into his own jaw in 1784...” (Parentheses added.) (16)
Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) is:
Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) .... a broad-based organization of African American historians, attorneys, elected officials, religious leaders, media personalities, community activists, and registered voters.
My interview with attorney and community activist Michael Coard, co founder of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC):
Karen Hatter (KH): Mr. Coard, how did the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) come into existence?
Michael Coard (MC): A newspaper article was written in 2002 about the move of the Liberty Bell Center from Fifth and Market Streets to Sixth and Market Streets.
In that article was information indicating that not only was that Sixth and Market Street site the original site of the President's House, America's first "White House" but, it was also the site where President George Washington enslaved Black people.
As a result of reading that in 2002, many in Philadelphia's Black community were outraged about the malicious failure of Independence National Historical Park (INHP) and the National Park Service (NPS) to publicly and conspicuously acknowledge that earth shattering historical fact, a fact, by the way, both entities had been well aware of since at least 1973.
When the Black community's demands to INHP and NPS were ignored, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) was born in 2002. The rest, as they say, is history. We've been meeting, strategizing, demonstrating, protesting, debating, negotiating, and winning ever since.
KH: What has been ATAC’s principle concern regarding the construction of the President’s House memorial?
MC: The permeation of slavery in the project, in its most graphic, hence, horribly realistic form, is our principle concern. Far too long, American history has minimized slavery as a long past, relatively minor aberration in America's financial and material greatness. But America is great today only because of slavery yesterday.
Imagine if you owned a company that for 246 years, from 1619-1865, did not have to pay or insure its employees. You'd certainly have a financially and materially great company. Well, America is that company- because, from 1619, my ancestors were first held in bondage in what is now America until 1865 when the 13th Amendment was enacted.
Throughout all of that time, slavery permeated every aspect of America, just as it has permeated every aspect of the President's House. It was there with President George Washington in 1790 when he moved in. It was there when slave trader Robert Morris leased it to the federal government to house the president. It was there from the beginning in 1767 when the estate of major slave owner William Masters, the former mayor of Philadelphia, built the house.
KH: When visiting Philadelphia’s historic attractions, visitors from across the U.S. and around the world have remarked they were unaware that George Washington held slaves. Please share your thoughts regarding what many consider to be a glaring omission in the telling of the historical narrative of the America’s first president.
MC: That question can best be answered by reading The Black Eye on George Washington's White House, archived at the ATAC website. The article was written at the request of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.
In addition, I respond by stating that the glaring omission you reference is revealed as follows: If American visitors and tourists want to say that George Washington was a great patriot, they can say that. If they want to say that he was a great general, they can say that, too. And if they want to say that he was a great president, they can say that, as well. But, can he be a great human being when he enslaved 316 of his fellow human beings in brutal bondage at his Mt. Vernon, Virginia estate?
KH: Please share your insight into the discussion of the inclusion of the histories of the nine persons of African descent held as slaves at the President’s House as it evolved over the seven year planning phase of the memorial.
MC: Highlighted and conspicuous inclusion of the history of the nine is absolutely essential. If there was not sufficient inclusion, there would not be a project, at least, not without relentless and zealous protests, even constant civil disobedience.
KH: There has been contention among the various entities involved in the project regarding what balance to strike while covering the accomplishments and legacies of U.S. Presidents George Washington and John Adams, both having resided at the President’s House, as well as offering an accurate representation of the harshness of the lives of the enslaved. How was that issue resolved?
MC: I'll quote Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana and Ken Burns, noted filmmaker and historian, in response to the complaint by numerous vocal White historians regarding the project:
"The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class." - Nkrumah
"The black-white rift stands at the very center of American history. It is the great challenge to which all our deepest aspirations to freedom must rise. If we forget that- if we forget the great stain of slavery that stands at the heart of our country, our history, our experiment- we forget who we are, and we make the great rift deeper and wider." - Burns
Although Washington and Adams are effectively addressed in this project, equality is not the point. Why? Because equality in one project where inequality has been the rule in more than hundreds of previous projects is not only insufficient, it's just plain wrong.
What's right is equity, meaning the leveling of the historic playing field. In this project, that means more about the enslavement of Black humans, which is rarely highlighted and less about the deification of White heroes, which is always highlighted.
I would prefer that the project be "blacker", more emotionally intense in terms of accurately, graphically portraying the horrors of slavery. But, as a Black man who realizes that this is a government-funded project on federal property, I'm a pragmatist who views this project as a giant step in the right direction.
Those aforementioned white historians and others will certainly attack the project as politically correct, meaning controversial. But I respond by quoting a representative of publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston who said "When you're publishing a book, if there's something that is controversial, it's better to take it out."
Similarly stated, when you're designing and interpreting a historical project, the powers that be will caution you to play it safe. However, playing it safe brings you nothing but safety. It does not bring you truth.
KH: Research has revealed President Washington’s concern for his public image and his association with America’s system of institutional slavery.
For instance, in private correspondence to his chief secretary Tobias Lear, President Washington directed him to assess his obligation to comply with Pennsylvania’s statute granting emancipation to any enslaved person(s) residing in the state for at least six months. He also directed that efforts to recapture an enslaved runaway not be linked to his name.
1791/03 While the Capital was still located in Philadelphia, George Washington, fearing the impact of a Pennsylvania law freeing slaves after six months residence in that state, instructed his secretary Tobias Lear to ascertain what effect the law would have on the status of the slaves who served the presidential household in Philadelphia.
In case Lear believed that any of the slaves were likely to seek their freedom under Pennsylvania law, Washington wished them sent home to Mount Vernon. "If upon taking good advise it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public."
When one of his slaves ran away in 1795 Washington told his overseer to take measures to apprehend the slave "but I would not have my name appear in any advertisement, or other measure, leading to it."
(Tobias Lear, Letters and Recollections of George Washington, NY, 1906, page 38; Washington to William Pearce, 22 Mar. 1795, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union.
Recounted in "That Species of Property": Washington's Role in the Controversy Over Slavery by Dorothy Twohig.
Originally Presented at a Conference on Washington and Slavery at Mount Vernon, October 1994)
President Washington’s statute inquiry and his desired handling of attempts to retrieve an escaped enslaved person reveal a strategy to juggle the logistics of his personal life as a slaveholder with that of his public persona.
Has any research reconciled the contradictory nature of President Washington’s private and public actions regarding slavery in America?
MC: No research has reconciled or can or will reconcile Washington's contradiction. His public face as the selfless friend of freedom directly contradicts his not-so-private face as the selfish enemy of freedom. There's no getting around it and no way of stating it euphemistically: simply put, he was a hypocrite.
KH: Scholars associated with the project worked diligently to assure the incorporation of the stories of those known enslaved persons that traveled with President Washington between his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during his tenure as President of the United States. What additional facts regarding slavery might scholars involved with the project have included at the President’s House memorial?
MC: Everything in the article I wrote, archived at the ATAC website, should be included in the project.
KH: On December 6, 2010, there is a planned public event, characterized as a “soft opening” by Rosalyn McPherson, who is overseeing the project for the city of Philadelphia. The official opening is scheduled to occur in July 2011. Have details for the December event been finalized?
MC: Not yet. ATAC will play a prominent role at both openings.
KH: Having assured the memorial will provide Philadelphians, the nation and the world with a finite glimpse into the lives of the nine enslaved persons at the President’s House, who labored under the brutality of the United States’ system of chattel slavery, what’s next for Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC)?
MC: The Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) will address a number of issues, including the renaming of public schools that are currently named after slave owners.
We will also continue our fund raising for historic Eden Cemetery, the oldest Black public cemetery in America. Some of history's greatest African Americans are interred there.
Eden's creation was a cumulative effort. It was the original idea of its founder and organizer, Jerome Bacon. Bacon was a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth on Bainbridge near 9th Street, which was later renamed Cheyney State College.
In 1900 most African Americans in Philadelphia lived in the SP Ward, an area examined in W.E.B. DuBois' study, The Philadelphia Negro. As the city's population increased. neighborhood" cemeteries were condemned due to improvements in sanitary and sewage systems.
Out of respect for those currently interred and to provide a future resting place for African Americans, Bacon discussed with his contemporaries a plan for a unified African American cemetery. Eden's first president, J. C. Asbury; first manager, Daniel W. Parvis; first treasurer, Martin Lehmann and first vice president, Charles Jones, agreed with Bacon on a fifty-three acre plot in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.
The area was selected because of its proximity to Philadelphia, beautiful landscape, size and availability.
Sadly, it has consistently been victimized by racist desecration, beginning with its opening in 1902 when its entrance was blockaded by racist thugs and most recently, in 2008, when more than 200 headstones were vandalized by racist thugs, with many other examples of outrageously shocking racist desecration throughout the decades.
KH: Mr. Coard, is there any additional information you’d wish to share or thoughts you’d wish to express?
MC: Everything that needs to be said is at our website. However, in conclusion, I'll say this.
History has been made in America with this President's House/Slavery Memorial project.
This project is the first of its kind anywhere at anytime in the United States. For African Americans, it is our Mt. Rushmore, our Statue of Liberty, our Liberty Bell. Finally, people will be shown the real history of America and that means the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
From the ATAC website, in Mr. Coard’s words:
When considering the issue of slavery, whether in connection with Washington in Philadelphia or other slave owners throughout America, it is essential to recognize that the so-called “slaves” were sentient human beings, not inanimate things. They had personalities. They had aspirations. They had thoughts. They had feelings. They had names and backgrounds. And those names and backgrounds must be made known so that they, as real human beings, are both humanized and personalized.
Accordingly, and because this article pertains specifically to Washington’s Philadelphia “White House,” it will humanize and personalize the nine whom he brought to the city (27), eight of them in 1790 and the ninth in 1796. These nine, it must be noted, were not the only black human beings enslaved by Washington and his wife who together either owned or had the lifetime use of a total of 316 as listed in his official Mount Vernon records. (28)
The names of the nine enslaved persons who labored in the household of George and Martha Washington at the President’s House, whose names and histories will be enshrined as a part of the memorial, due in large part to the activism of the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), are Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Hercules, Joe (Richardson), Moll, Oney Judge, Paris and Richmond.
Mr. Coard, my heartfelt thanks for your activism and the dedication of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) in righting one of American history’s enumerable wrongs, in the form of omissions, reclaiming from anonymity the contributions of these nine enslaved persons of African descent, nine among countless millions who will remain unsung and unknown, who toiled nearly 400 years in this land, first in the 13 British colonies and later, in the United States of America.
Also at NowPublic: