Philadelphia `White House' plan controversial

Washington's mansion at Sixth and Market also abode of slaves

December 07, 2003|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PHILADELPHIA - One of the lost landmarks of American history may soon be brought back to public view - not only because it was the nation's first real "White House" but because it was also the abode of slaves.

Described by George Washington as "the best single house in the city," the four-story mansion that once stood here at Sixth and Market streets was his official residence for nearly all his presidency and served John Adams for all but four months of his.

Historians and architects have been trying to have the demolished house rebuilt or marked with a commemorative structure for years, with little success. But the discovery of how much the house and its honored occupants were involved with slavery has stirred African-American community groups to make common cause with the historians.

They are now on the brink of having the forgotten house memorialized - focusing on its slave quarters and the role slaves played in its history.

$4.5 million project

Philadelphia Mayor John Street recently announced that the city will make a $1.5 million contribution to get a $4.5 million project under way.

Unmarked and forgotten, the site is the front lawn for the National Park Service's new Liberty Bell Center.

In this mansion, Washington virtually created the American presidency. Here he established the first National Bank, signed the Neutrality Act that kept the U.S. out of Europe's wars and directed the suppression of the Whisky Rebellion, an armed insurrection against the U.S. government by angry taxpayers in western Pennsylvania.

More darkly, here Washington housed eight of his more than 100 slaves and signed a law that denied freedom to escaped slaves.

The National Park Service owns the site as part of the Independence National Historical Park complex, which includes Independence Hall, where Congress once convened, and the meeting place of the 18th century U.S. Supreme Court.

But there is nothing to represent the executive branch.

`A certain irony'

"Most people don't know it was here," said Ed Lawler, historian for Philadelphia's Independence Hall Association, a citizens oversight group. "It was a shock to discover that so few people know that Philadelphia had once been the capital and that Washington had lived here." "There is a certain irony," said Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan. "There was a place that existed where they had slavery, and now it's the front yard of the Liberty Bell Center."

Philadelphia attorney Michael Coard, a descendant of slaves and leader of the grass-roots Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, said the site historically had had little relevance for African-Americans.

"Like every other black kid in Philadelphia schools, I made the yearly trip to the Liberty Bell, and I was bored out of my mind," he said.

But after Lawler published a paper revealing the slave history of the place in January 2002, the community became outraged and energized.

In a letter to Independence Park Superintendent Mary Bomar objecting to the plans for the Liberty Bell installation because of the slavery omission, Coard complained, "That location is where President George Washington resided in America's first `White House' while holding African human beings in brutal bondage as slaves."

After his 1789 election, Washington and the U.S. government were quartered temporarily in New York, moving the next year to Philadelphia.

Built in 1760s

The house that became the executive mansion was built in the 1760s and used by British commander Gen. William Howe as his headquarters during the American Revolution. The traitor Benedict Arnold took it over when American forces reoccupied Philadelphia in 1778.

Robert Morris, the financial savior of the new American republic, moved into the house in 1782 and volunteered the property for Washington's use after his election as president.

Two-thirds the size of the present White House, the mansion was used as a residence and working office.

"It was enormous," said Lawler. "More than 30 people slept in the house. The whole `West Wing' was in a third-floor room about 24 by 21 feet, where Washington's staff worked."

Washington sidestepped a provision of the law that granted freedom to any slave who had resided continuously for six months in Pennsylvania by rotating his slaves out of the state when that deadline approached.

Washington maintained eight slaves in Philadelphia, including Hercules, a renowned cook, and Oney Judge, Martha Washington's maidservant.

Oney Judge escaped to freedom upon being informed by Martha Washington that she was being given away to a bride as a wedding present. Hercules fled in 1797, as Washington prepared to leave the presidency and return to Mt. Vernon, Va.

A visitor, Prince Louis-Philippe of France, told Hercules' daughter she must be very unhappy because she would never see her father again.

`He is free now'

"Oh, sir, I am very glad," she is reported to have said, "because he is free now."

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