The "Black" Eye on George Washington's "White" House
September 11, 2005, updated October 21, 2010
Michael Coard, Esquire
America the beautiful, upon close historical inspection, is not really that beautiful after all. It has fundamental flaws, and one of those flaws is the “black” eye on George Washington’s “’White’ House.” That “black” eye is slavery.
From age eleven in 1743 until his death at sixty-seven in 1799, Washington (and his wife Martha Washington) owned Africans and their descendants as slaves. Although he personally cannot be held responsible for the institution of slavery in America, he personally — as president of the Constitutional Convention and president of the United States of America — can be held responsible for condoning, hence encouraging, slavery. He can be held so responsible because he enslaved Black human beings and because he refused to use his considerable political power to condemn slavery during his presidency of the convention and of the country. (1)
Moreover, in addition to enslaving Blacks in the South, he also enslaved them in the North. Though many Americans surely will find such statements inflammatory and provocative, not one American factually can deny them. The historical record is clear: the “father of this country,” while selflessly supporting the liberty of whites, was selfishly opposing the liberty of Blacks. And he did it even in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the President’s House, which the esteemed Chicago Tribune referred to as America’s “first real ‘White House’,” the site where this country’s preeminent symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell, is now located. (2) The exact address when Washington lived there was 190 High Street, which today is 526-530 Market Street. (3)
While there are persons who disagree with the meritorious contention that Philadelphia is the home of America’s first real “White House” and who quibble that it was in New York, New York or Washington, District of Columbia (then known as the Federal City), those persons certainly must concede the following three uncontestable facts as reported by this writer (i.e., Michael Coard, Esquire). First, although George Washington was sworn in as president in New York City in 1789, he lived there in one house for only ten months and later in a second house for only six months. But he lived in Philadelphia for more than six years and did so in one house. Second, the federal Residence Act of 1790, which designated the District of Columbia as the permanent national capital, designated Philadelphia as the (first) temporary national capital where the president officially would reside, as George Washington did from November 1790 until March 1797. Third, Philadelphia was the first city to house more than one president. (4)
As an aside, it is interesting to note that during the War of 1812, British troops on August 4, 1814 set aflame the District of Columbia building formally known as the “President’s House.” Three years later, structural and cosmetic renovations — including the application of white paint to cover the burnt exterior of that building — were completed. The use of that white paint led citizens, beginning in 1818, to start referring informally to the building as the “White House.” As that name gained in popularity and became commonplace during the next several decades, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 made it official when he had it, instead of the Executive Mansion, engraved on his stationery. (5)
But the President’s House in Philadelphia predated all of this. This house, a majestic domicile, also was known as the Robert Morris Mansion because it was owned by Morris who leased it to Washington. Morris was a wealthy Philadelphia resident who provided not only his house to Washington but also substantial financial assistance to Washington’s Revolutionary War efforts. As a result, his money helped to make America free. The problem is that much of his money was earned from his investment in the slave economy and some of it specifically from the slave trade. In other words, his wealth, to a significant extent, was blood money earned literally from the blood, sweat, and tears of enslaved Africans and their enslaved descendants. This means that, were it not for the vast profits accrued from slavery by Morris (as well as other slave investors and traders), America, to this very day, could have remained a colony of the British Empire. Accordingly, there can be no dispute that black enslavement gave rise to white freedom.
In regard to the building that came to be known as the President’s House, it must be noted that construction began in 1767 at the direction of the widow of William L. Masters. This is historically pertinent because not only was Masters the Mayor of Philadelphia in the 1750s (who died in 1760), but he also was a wealthy slave owner whose estate’s enslaved blacks were likely to have been the laborers who actually helped to construct what would later serve as America’s first “White House.” (6). Parenthetically, it is quite interesting that the building subsequently housed none other than Benedict Arnold in 1778 when he was an American general before his notorious betrayal. (7)
During Washington’s years in Philadelphia, some of the enslaved African descendants that he owned lived inside the President’s House. But others were lodged outside in slave quarters, which, in the worst sort of infamous irony and historical hypocrisy, were located a mere five feet from the very entrance to what is now the Liberty Bell Center near the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets. This irony and hypocrisy exist in that the Liberty Bell, originally called the State House Bell, was adopted, beginning in the 1830s, by abolitionists as their symbol. One of their first known public uses of the bell was as a “frontispiece to an 1837 edition of Liberty, published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society... [Also,] William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery publication The Liberator reprinted a Boston abolitionist pamphlet containing a poem about the bell, entitled ‘The Liberty Bell,’ which represents the first documented use of the name, the Liberty Bell.” (Parentheses added.) (8)
Evidence of the existence and location of slave quarters is found in a 1785 map of the President’s House grounds that indicates the presence of a smokehouse and an attached covered shed that was later likely converted into slave quarters. This conclusion is based upon a 1790 letter from Washington’s chief secretary, Tobias Lear, to Washington pointing out that “The Smoke House will be extended to the end of the Stable, and two good rooms made it for the accomodation [sic] of the Stablepeople.” The so-called “Stable people” included three enslaved black stable workers, in particular Giles, Paris, and probably Austin. (9) And, although these black men were human beings, they were forced to live outside in slave quarters while the Washington family dog, “Frisk,” lived in comfort inside the President’s House. (10)
The President’s House is great, just as America today is great; but the greatness of each came at a cost — a very expensive cost paid for by enslaved Africans, enslaved African descendants, and the offspring of those descendants. That cost was a direct and immediate result of the transatlantic slave trade. Throughout world history, man’s inhumanity to man has been horrific and has not limited itself to the victimization of any single group. However, it has manifested itself at its absolute worst in the victimization of enslaved Africans and their enslaved descendants in the Americas and throughout Europe. As a result of that enslavement, African men, women, and children, from 1619 through 1865 (and beyond), lost more than just their freedom. They also lost their culture, their family, their language, their land, their religion, their name, their human status, and often their sanity, their limbs, and even their lives.
Before making this country great, Africans and their descendants — not just those who were enslaved but also those who were relatively “free” — actually made this country possible. They made it possible by volunteering five thousand of their bodies as armed soldiers and up to approximately ten thousand in non-combat roles to help Washington secure what was a nearly inconceivable victory in the Revolutionary War, despite his initial refusal to accept the essential assistance of Blacks as battlefield troops. (11) And those Africans and their descendants made it possible by continuing to labor relentlessly without compensation, without appreciation, and without respect from slave owners, including those like Washington who served as delegates to the convention that produced the 1787 Constitution. It was that very same Constitution — created with Washington presiding — that not only endorsed slavery but also promoted it in at least five specific clauses.
The first clause was Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, which defined enslaved Blacks as subhuman, counting them as three-fifths of a total human being for the purpose of representation in Congress. (Apologists for this clause argue that it was a necessary compromise designed to dilute the political power of strong slave-holding southern states. However, that argument fails because the three-fifths clause was not a true compromise in that it was not consistently applied since it did not give enslaved Africans or their enslaved descendants three-fifths of any wages, three-fifths of any land, three-fifths of any votes, three-fifths of any rights, three-fifths of any freedom, etc.)
The second clause, similar in purpose to the first, was Article II, Section 1, Clause 2, which established the Electoral College. In combination with the three-fifths clause, this second clause gave white southerners more influence than white northerners in presidential elections.
The third clause was Article I, Section 8, Clause 15, which guaranteed federal military aid, thus comforting and protecting the South in case of slave rebellions.
The fourth clause was Article I, Section 9, Clause 1, which continued the importation of Africans as slaves in America for at least two more decades. Despite the fact that in 1808 Congress could act to prohibit such importation, United States slave traders and slave masters were not very concerned because by that time the enslaved black population would be “domestically grown” instead of “internationally shipped,” in other words, bred instead of imported. This new practice of breeding black human beings to labor as machines until their death was one engaged in by traders and masters across the country, including those such as Washington himself. In fact, he “wanted teenaged slaves, including girls with a long period of childbearing ahead of them. Washington was growing laborers as if they were a crop, to make himself self-sufficient as a slave owner.” (12)
The fifth clause was Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, which tightened the grip of slavery by requiring free states to return escapees to slave states. To make matters worse, it was none other than Washington who, in 1793 (presumably within the Philadelphia President’s House), signed the Fugitive Slave Act that created an explicit legal procedure for capturing escapees and for financially punishing black and white persons who assisted them. Also, this new law forced free states to be complicit with slave states by actively assisting in the re-enslavement of escapees. (13)
(A sixth pro-slavery constitutional clause could be noted here along with the other five as a kind of act of omission instead of an act of commission. This is because the South made absolutely certain that the embarrassing “slavery” or “slave” word was never to be written anywhere in the Constitution. In fact, the closest that the South would come to even allowing reference to be made to slavery or slaves was the following euphemistic phrase found in the aforesaid 20 year extension of slave importation clause, namely Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1: “The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit...” (Italics added.)
It truthfully can be said that Washington was great. But his greatness was as a patriot, a general, and a president. However, his greatness was not as a man — that is, if greatness is measured by how a man treats his fellow man or woman, even if he or she happens to be an enslaved black man or an enslaved black woman. American schoolchildren often were and are taught the myth of the great Washington who could “not tell a lie” and the myth of him throwing a coin across the Potomac. But they rarely, if ever, were or are taught the truth about the real Washington and about what he did to his fellow men and women — i.e., his fellow enslaved black men and women — in terms of their existence generally or in terms of their food, clothing, and shelter specifically. For example, in regard to clothing, very few students and very few other Americans, for that matter, know that Washington had a habit of being an unsanitary miser. This is proven by the fact that, at his Mount Vernon, Virginia plantation, he issued “dirty,” “fouled,” and “manure” soaked garments to enslaved Blacks because such garments were the least expensive since they came from the cheapest fabric available, which was the “stomach wool” of sheep. (14) Similarly, many of those black laborers had to resort to rummaging for coarse burlap bags to use as outer wear because Washington refused to adequately clothe them. As one leading Washington scholar discovered, Washington’s “slaves were miserably clothed... [In fact, they] were so badly clothed that they were stealing the wheat sacks made of the cheapest, roughest burlap to repair their own clothes... Otherwise, [they] would go around in rags.” (Parentheses added) (15)
Although Washington considered his enslaved black workers unworthy of proper clothing (among other items), he certainly found their teeth quite worthy, so much so that he replaced a number of his unhealthy teeth with their healthy teeth, to his mouth from their mouths. 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 that 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)
In regard to shelter, Washington’s treatment of his fellow men and women was just as bad. Consistent with the aforementioned scholar’s comment that Washington’s black workforce was “miserably housed... [in] a very harsh place” (17) is the observation of Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish poet who resided for two weeks in 1798 at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and who described the living conditions of many of the enslaved population:
We entered some negroes’ huts, for their habitations cannot be called houses. They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and his wife sleep on a miserable bed, the children on the floor. A very poor chimney, a little kitchen furniture stands amid this misery — a teakettle and cups. A boy about fifteen was lying on the floor with an attack of dreadful convulsions... They receive a Washington’s treatment, or more precisely his mistreatment, of his fellow men and women went beyond mere stinginess in barely providing food, clothing, and shelter. It applied as well to his disdain for the human worth of his enslaved black laborers as evidenced by his reference to them as “a Species of Property,” very much as he described animals like his dogs and horses. (19) As another Washington authority noted, “Most of the slaves who worked his [i.e., Washington’s] farms he treated as cattle and referred to only by their first names.” (Parentheses added.) (20)
Many historians and others contend that Washington was simply a man of his times and that as a result he could not and therefore did not truly appreciate the error of his ways. But he could and he did. In fact, as pointed out by an additional Washington biographer, “... it was an inescapable presence that enveloped... [Washington’s] day-by-day experience from the moment he walked out the front door of his mansion until he returned from his midday ride around the farms.” (Parentheses added.) (21) He could not escape slavery. Yet, because he knew it was wrong, he preferred to turn a blind eye. As he wrote in a November 23, 1794 letter in reference to slavery, “... I do not like to think, much less talk about it.” (22)
Not only did Washington obviously and constantly understand the error of his ways, at times he also lied about it. Notwithstanding clergyman Mason Locke Weems’s 1809 “Washington cannot tell a lie” story (23), Washington did lie and did so, inter alia, regarding his continued enslavement of black human beings. Consider, for example, his December 19, 1786 vow to never again purchase another slave. Despite that vow, he later, at least once, accepted enslaved black people as partial payment on a debt and again purchased them to serve as skilled craftsmen to labor on final renovations at Mount Vernon. (24) Even if he had kept his promise to never again purchase slaves, it would have been “A somewhat hollow promise since, as... [Washington] himself acknowledged, he was already overstocked with ‘this species of property’.” (Parentheses and italics added.) (25)
Whether before, during, or after Washington’s broken vows, the enslaved Africans and enslaved African descendants at Mt. Vernon and Philadelphia were nothing more to Washington than a mere “species of property,” as he personally described them. As such, they all, including those whom he brought to Philadelphia, were treated in a degrading, demeaning, debasing, and dehumanizing manner. Despite the apparent belief of many Americans that Washington’s enslaved black laborers at the Philadelphia President’s House did not suffer too much, there is a general response and a specific response. The general response to that erroneous belief is that slavery always causes dreadful suffering because it is an inherent evil designed to break the spirit, confound the mind, flail the flesh, imprison the body, and ultimately kill the person. The specific response is that those nine brought to Philadelphia suffered to such a profound extent that two of his ostensible favorites — Hercules and Oney Judge — were compelled to escape while in Philadelphia and at least two others — Richmond and Christopher Sheels — evidently planned their escape not long after returning from Philadelphia. Similarly, at Mount Vernon, seven others — namely Peros, Jack, Neptune, Cupid, Sam, Bett, and Tom — also were compelled to escape, although their freedom was short-lived. (26). (Seventeen others escaped in 1781. But five were captured, and that happened in Philadelphia. See footnote 33 below.)
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 brief backgrounds of those persons, whom this writer empathetically refers to as the “Noosed Nine,” are as follows in alphabetical order by given names (since most did not have surnames):
Austin — Born between 1757-1759, he was approximately 32 years old when brought to Philadelphia and was about 15 years older than his half sister Oney Judge. He was married to Charlotte, an enslaved seamstress, with whom he had five children. He toiled as a waiter, carriage footman, and probably stable worker who likely lived in slave quarters with two additional transported enslaved black laborers, namely Giles and Paris, and probably another person. He died on December 20, 1794 at around 36 years old in Harford, Maryland after a fall from a horse while returning to Mt. Vernon.
Christopher Sheels — Born circa 1774 and later serving as Washington’s sole “body servant,” he was approximately 16 years old when brought to Philadelphia. He obviously was literate because, sometime in or about September 1799 at Mount Vernon, an enslaved woman from another plantation wrote him a note regarding an escape plan. Unfortunately, that note was intercepted by Washington who foiled the plan.
Giles — Born around 1758, he was approximately 32 years old and served as a carriage worker and driver when brought to Philadelphia, where he apparently was housed in slave quarters with Austin, Paris, and probably another person. He was returned to Mt. Vernon in 1791 after being injured in an accident during Washington’s tour of the southern states. Giles died sometime before 1799.
Hercules — Born in 1754, making him 36 years old when brought to Philadelphia, he was Washington’s thoroughly impressive chief cook who married Alice, an enslaved seamstress at Mount Vernon. Together, they had three children, including Richmond. After Alice died in 1787, Hercules alone raised those children and probably had a fourth child later. Despite his renowned culinary talents and his “prominent” status in the president’s household, Hercules knew that he was nothing more than a mere thing to Washington. That is why, on February 22, 1797 — which was Washington’s 65th birthday — he courageously escaped from Washington’s cruel grasp while in Mt. Vernon (as first reported in any newspaper by Craig LaBan in the Philadelphia Inquirer in a two part article on February 21 and 22, 2010) and remained forever “free” at some unknown location until some unknown death date.
Joe (Richardson) — Also known as “Postilion Joe,” he was born probably in 1769 and married Sall, a Mount Vernon enslaved seamstress. Together they had at least seven children. He was an approximately 26 year old presidential coach footman and stable worker when brought to Philadelphia on or about on October 20, 1795, which was five years after the other eight.
Moll — Born circa 1739, she was the nanny to Martha Washington’s two youngest grandchildren (as well as to Martha’s children from her first marriage) and was about 51 when brought to Philadelphia. She was returned to Mount Vernon in 1797.
Oney Judge — Born around 1773 and the younger half sister of Austin, she was a needlework expert and Martha’s personal servant. She was likely 17 years old when brought to Philadelphia in November 1790. After discovering that she was to be given as a wedding gift, meaning as a mere thing, by Martha to Martha’s eldest granddaughter, Oney finally had enough and planned an escape with the active assistance of Philadelphia’s large relatively free black population. She executed the plan on May 21, 1796, going from Pennsylvania, then apparently through New York, and ultimately settling in New Hampshire. Although Oney’s escape was successful and permanent, it was not restful because Washington, as a result of Martha, was nearly unyielding in trying to track down and capture her. Despite Washington’s and Martha’s hounding, Oney, the married mother of three children, lived as an otherwise “free,” albeit fugitive, woman until her death at about age 75 in Greenland, New Hampshire on February 25, 1848, nearly 50 years after Washington’s 1799 and Martha’s 1802 respective deaths.
Paris — Born approximately 1774, he was a stable worker at the Mt. Vernon plantation and later, when brought to Philadelphia around the age of 16, likely was housed in slave quarters along with Austin, Giles, and probably another person. After being taken back to Mt. Vernon in June of 1791, he died there sometime around October, 1794.
Richmond — Born in 1776, he was the son of Hercules and Alice and had two sisters and possibly a step sibling. After being brought to Philadelphia at age 14, he was forced to do the “rough and dirty” backbreaking labor of a scullion and also worked as a chimney sweep. Three months before his father’s great escape, he apparently had his own (albeit unsuccessful) escape plan.
Not only did Washington work feverishly to recapture his own enslaved black laborers, he also worked just as hard, and did so in a blatantly illegal manner, to make sure that they never would escape, whether they used stealth or the law. Among the provisions of the Gradual Abolition Act passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1780, enslaved Africans and enslaved African descendants brought into the commonwealth by slave-holders from other states could gain their freedom if they remained in Pennsylvania for a period of six consecutive months. But Washington did not use legal technicalities to evade that law; instead, he simply violated it as any common criminal would. Initially, the aforesaid act had a technical loophole that permitted out-of-state slave owners in Pennsylvania to rotate their human property outside Pennsylvania so as to avoid the six month freedom requirement. That loophole indicated that just one full day outside the state would toll the six month period. In other words, if an enslaved person on even the last day of a six month period were taken a mere one inch over the Pennsylvania state line for just one full day, the six month period would have to be started anew, over and over again each time that person was taken to any other state for any distance for at least one full day. However, eight years later in 1788, that act was amended with the following language:
“No... slave... shall be removed out of this state... with the... intention that such slave... shall be brought again into this state, after the expiration of six months from the time of such slave... having been first brought into this state... and if any person... shall... carry... any such slave... out of this state, for any of the purposes aforesaid, whereby such slave... would lose those benefits... which by the laws... are secured to him or her... every... person (doing so)... shall... forfeit and pay, for every such offence, the sum of seventy-five pounds...” (Parentheses added.) (29)
But in violation of that amendment, Washington, with the advice of his Attorney General, Edmond Randolph, nonetheless decided to rotate his “slaves” without freeing them and even without informing them of the liberating law in effect at the time. Proof of his maliciousness and disingenuousness is found in his own April 12, 1791 letter to his chief secretary wherein he wrote that “I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both... [i.e., the slaves] and the Public.” (Italics and parentheses added.) (30)
Unfortunately, Washington’s chicanery in Pennsylvania paled in comparison to his ultimate mistreatment of enslaved black human beings throughout America. In addition to the misery he inflicted upon the nine in Philadelphia, Washington caused grief for many other enslaved black people. It was in Philadelphia that he aggressively and successfully sought the return of all blacks who had fled to the British in response to Lord Dunmore’s November 14, 1775 freedom proclamation, which offered immediate emancipation to any black male who agreed to join the British troops. (31) Most heinously, on February 12, 1793, Washington signed into law the heart-wrenching Fugitive Slave Act. Imagine, for a moment, that you are an enslaved black man, black woman, or black child. As such you suffer the unimaginable horrors of captivity. Those horrors include forced labor, flesh-gouging whippings, arbitrary auctions, tortuous rapes or grisly castrations, lynching nightmares, and rampant dehumanization. But then, one day, you escape to freedom, to the “Promised Land.” You plan to work to buy the freedom of family and friends. You find a job. You get an education. However, if you are anywhere in the United States or its territories from 1793 through 1847, your freedom may well be short-lived because Washington signed into law a document that can return you to slavery. Specifically, Section 3 of that act reads:
That when a person held to labor in any of the United States, or... the Territories... shall escape into any other part of the said States or Territory, the person to whom such labor... may be due... is hereby empowered to seize... such fugitive from labor... (based on) oral testimony or affidavit... that the person so seized... doth... owe... labor to the person claiming him or her..., which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labor to the State or Territory from which he or she fled. (32)
In response to Lord Dunmore’s aforementioned 1775 freedom proclamation, it is important to note that many enslaved blacks were quite emboldened by the idea of finally being free and finally being able to assert one’s self as any human being should be able to. In fact, numerous newspapers at the time in several colonies reported the following powerful, empowering, and emboldening incident that occurred in Philadelphia immediately after that proclamation:
A white woman “was walking along a narrow sidewalk when she came upon a black man who refused to step into the muddy street to let her by. When she called him to task, the man replied ‘Stay, you damned white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall’.”(33).
Washington’s historically documented wrongs, many of which were perpetrated in Philadelphia, must be righted — to the extent that such horrific wrongs ever can be righted. Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), a broad-based coalition of African American historians, academics, civic organizations, community activists, elected officials, religious leaders, media personalities, lawyers, businessmen, businesswomen, and other descendants of the victims of the Euro-American slave trade, is demanding a right to those wrongs. ATAC has spearheaded a voluminous letter-writing campaign and a petition drive, which has garnered more than fifteen thousand signatures to date. Moreover, ATAC held major demonstrations next to the site of America’s first “White House” on July 3, 2002, July 3, 2003, July 3, 2004, and July 1, 2005 and has provided substantial documentation to U.S. House Appropriations Committee member Congressman Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, who was instrumental in securing an amendment to the Interior Department’s 2003 budget requiring the National Park Service to develop plans for the President’s House site, including an “appropriate commemoration” of the nine enslaved African descendants there. (34) And, in August 2005, primarily through the efforts of Congressman Fattah, $3.6 million in federal funding was provided for the site and the commemoration. In addition, ATAC in 2003 helped to secure $1.5 million from Mayor John Street of Philadelphia toward the funding for the commemorative project, which will be part of the overall $4.5 million President’s House plan.
Since at least September 1974, which was thirty-one years ago, Independence National Historical Park (INHP) suppressed, hid, and denied the complete truth about slavery at the Philadelphia President’s House. It is high time, after three decades, that INHP finally commemorate at least those nine forced to labor in American slavery. Although it indisputably is true that white indentured servants also “labored” at this President’s House, their situation cannot be compared in any way whatsoever to the all-consuming plight of the enslaved black workers there. To make such a comparison is worse than historically erroneous; it is a racist insult. While indentured servants had mere contractual limitations on their freedom, enslaved black workers had no freedom whatsoever. While indentured servants were (figuratively) locked into a contract for a temporary period of work, enslaved black workers were (literally) shackled into a lifetime — as well as a multigenerational lifetime — sentence of non-stop work and often even death. The difference between white indentured servants and black enslaved persons — whose free labor as slaves benefited Washington and contributed to the fledgling federal government (and continues to this day to contribute to this country) — is obvious. And it also is obvious that the genuine contributions to the functions of America’s federal government (and America in general) by those nine enslaved black laborers must be commemorated at the President’s House.
With the prodding of ATAC and others, INHP has agreed to a historic commemoration. ATAC has been watching — i.e., keeping a “black eye” on — and working on this President’s House slavery commemoration issue for nearly four years. It is because of ATAC’s watching and especially its working that it was able to help persuade INHP to go from “denying to designing.” For a very long time, INHP effectively denied the complete truth about the presence of Washington’s enslaved black laborers in the Philadelphia area and his slave quarters at the President’s House. However, within the past few years, under the remarkably good faith leadership and honest pragmatism of Mary Bomar, the former INHP superintendent, INHP began seeking design plans to commemorate those enslaved persons. And it was not altruism that led INHP recently to do the right thing. Instead, it was ATAC and others that persuaded INHP, an agency of the most powerful government on the planet, to go from “denying to designing.”
For the design, ATAC seeks a culturally-dignified, historically-complete, prominently-conspicuous, physically-dramatic, formally-official, and timely-installed commemoration on the grounds of the President’s House to honor, primarily, the nine enslaved African descendants. ATAC seeks that commemoration because justice demands it. Justice demands it because ATAC’s ancestors, as forced laborers, had their culture, family, language, land, religion, name, human status, and often their sanity, limbs, and even lives stripped from them for three centuries by America (and other European-initiated slave-trading countries). Justice demands it because those ancestors died for America in all of its wars. And justice demands it because those ancestors transformed America into the economic world power that it remains today. In other words, they made American liberty possible. Therefore, they deserve an appropriate commemoration (and they deserve it, at the very least, as a partial step toward complete reparations).
That, and only that, will begin to move toward the healing of the catastrophic injury that was slavery. And, in particular, it will begin to move toward the healing of the “black eye” on George Washington’s “White House.”
Michael Coard, Esquire
This article, just like the historically successful battle to persuade INHP to agree to commemorate the Philadelphia “Noosed Nine,” could not have been written without the spiritually motivated, thoughtfully planned, effectively executed, and relentlessly pursued constructive activism of the hundreds of ATAC members, the scholarly insight of ATAC’s official and learned historian Dr. Shirley Turpin-Parham, the meticulous probing of erudite and catalytic historian Edward Lawler Jr. of the Independence Hall Association, the Afrocentric guidance of ATAC founding member Dr. Edward Robinson, the cultural illumination of preeminent African-based artifacts collector and author Charles Blockson, and the black-conscious agitation of Generations Unlimited. But most important, this article could not have been written without the existence, the energy, the courage, the resiliency, the foresight, and the aspirations of Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Hercules, Joe (Richardson), Moll, Oney Judge, Paris, and Richmond and the tens of millions of other enslaved Africans and enslaved African descendants. Had they not sown struggle, we would not have reaped freedom. This article is for them!