Slavery & Washington's Legacy: Conflict at White House Memorial
Since the unearthing of the foundation of the building that served as the United States’ first presidential residence from 1790 to 1800, in 2007, known as the President's House, controversy has been at the forefront regarding how to construct the memorial as well as the portrayal of the lives of the nine enslaved people held at the first White House, their intricately intertwined existence with, and for many, their unexpected link to, the nation’s first president, George Washington. Washington resided in the President's House from 1790 until 1797.
National and international visitors touring historic downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sometimes called the ‘cradle of liberty’, often remark they were unaware the nation’s first president and one of its founding fathers had owned slaves.
As of June 2010, the controversy surrounding the memorial remains unresolved.
In recent months:
…. exhibits have been under fire from critics on all sides - from those who say the exhibition paints too rosy a picture of the lives of the nine enslaved people who lived in George and Martha Washington’s house, to those who say Washington’s legacy will be tarnished by the exhibit.
Remains of passageways used by enslaved workers unearthed in 2007
While excavating at the memorial site in 2007, not far from the location of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, passageways were discovered, later identified by historians as being used for the purpose of allowing enslaved workers to go about their work unobserved by visitors to the President’s house.
It was also discovered the enslaved people’s living quarters were in and near the stables with the horses.
Discovery of the passageways causes debate
Once the remains of the passageways were discovered, discussion arose regarding their significance and how or even if the inclusion of the usage of the passageways as part of the routine for the enslaved workers’ daily tasks was deemed necessary to the telling of the story of the Philadelphia White House.
For nearly 400 years, people of African descent contributed their forced labor, ingenuity, lives and blood ….
…. to this nation as they built this nation and created wealth for this nation and the world.
An intended glimpse into the functioning of the household of the man known to the world as the 'father of his country', a household which included the use of enslaved workers, seems appropriate.
An interesting fact regarding Washington’s dealings with those he held captive
Historians have uncovered much information about the nine enslaved people that accompanied George Washington to the Philadelphia White House from Mount Vernon, Virginia, including his concerns regarding their state of enslavement being in jeopardy while residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A residency statute in Pennsylvania provided that enslaved persons that resided for six months in the state would become emancipated.
Washington enlisted the aid of his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, to investigate the particulars of the statute.
Washington instructed Lear if he suspected:
…. 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.”
Facts regarding the escape of Hercules, Washington’s chef, contradict popular legend
For centuries, it had been accepted as fact that Washington’s enslaved chef, Hercules, made good his escape from Philadelphia, amid the hustle and bustle of the city. It has been discovered that while Washington was the guest of honor at his 65th birthday celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 22, 1797, Hercules, who was not in Philadelphia during the celebration, made his escape form Mount Vernon in Virginia that same night.
After the escape of an enslaved maid, of whom Washington’s wife, Martha, claimed ownership, during the previous spring and having suspicions that Hercules and his son were planning an escape, Washington, recognizing the increased opportunity of escape from Philadelphia, left Hercules in Virginia when he returned to Philadelphia in the fall of 1796.
Washington later wrote, “That will keep them out of idleness and mischief.”
While in Virginia, Hercules had been assigned more menial, back breaking duties like digging clay for bricks, spreading dung and smashing stones into sand.
At present, a wayside sign, posted by the National Park Service, identifies the site for the memorial, noting the duality of the nation in 1790 as:
…. reflecting both the ideals and contradictions of the new nation.
The house stood in the shadow of Independence Hall, where the words "All men are created equal” and “We the People” were adopted, but did not apply to all who lived in the new United States of America.
The President’s House project is slated for completion by the fall of 2010, with President Obama scheduled to be in attendance at the ribbon cutting ceremony.
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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States