A decade’s worth of discussion, activism, advances and retreats could ease next month if the planned President’s House and Slave Memorial opens without any further hitches on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The sparring has centered on properly recognizing the nine enslaved African-Americans who, history has since learned, George Washington brought from Mount Vernon after his election as president and kept in Philadelphia as he was helping define democratic freedom.
In response, the National Park Service and City of Philadelphia have come up with plans for a commemorative outdoor installation on the footprint of the President’s House, the “White House” from 1790 to 1800 while Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. Slave quarters for Washington’s stable hands were 5 feet from the entrance to the Liberty Bell—a symbol of the abolition movement.
Through architecture, landscaping, imagery and interpretive text, the installation intends to tell the story of the birth of a free nation in the shadows of indefensible slavery. But recognition of the dichotomy hasn’t come easily. The process has been complicated by special-interest groups, politicians, procedures, starts, stops and restarts—and by the thematic paradox itself.
A grand opening was originally scheduled for July, in conjunction with a pledge from President Barack Obama to visit the city to coincide with its celebration of Independence Day. It’s become an annual day of protest over the President’s House controversy, led by the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition and a splinter group, Generations Unlimited, at the Liberty Bell Pavilion.
“There will be a memorial,” says Saint Joseph’s University history professor Randall Miller, who has served with the Ad-Hoc Historians, essentially a lobbyist group that’s met separately, as needed, during the drawn-out project. Among other things, they sat down with the National Park Service and influenced the rewriting of the Liberty Bell script to reflect a “freedom-unfreedom” theme.
Whereas the ATAC has raised community awareness, Generations Unlimited—labeled “the real screamers” by one insider—has made the anger public. Calling the President’s House a “House of Horrors,” they want to see an open indictment of Washington.
“You could argue that all the groups are bringing the project forward into the public place because of the enormous civic engagement,” Miller says. “It’s contested and controversial, but it is certainly consequential. The project probably has consequences that are so important that we can’t even imagine them.”
Still, the main issue remains as obvious to Miller as it does to so many others. “Let’s be honest—race is at the core of it all,” he says. “African Americans are not represented at most of our country’s sacred national sites. This is the first time there’s a real opportunity for representation.”
Previously known as the Robert Morris House, the President’s House was Washington’s executive mansion from 1790 to 1797, and John Adams’ home base from 1797 to 1800. Its surviving walls were demolished to create Independence Mall on Nov. 1, 1951.
Decades later, the federal government decided to move the Liberty Bell from its current site to Sixth and Market streets—and subsequently honored the President’s House. In 2007, Kelly/Maiello, a black-owned Philadelphia design team, was selected as project architect, and archeology began.
The initial site dig proved more interesting than expected, with the discovery of a bow window built for Washington and a hidden servant’s passage. So then-mayor John Street pressed archeologists to (literally) dig deeper.
“Even while others said keep moving [on the construction], he said, ‘STOP!’” Miller says. “He realized it could actually start a conversation and initiate talk about race like never before. Now, that’s all sacred ground, and there’s a great story there—or is it an ungreat story?”
Quickly, controversy sparked over hiring enough minority subcontractors at the 12,000-square-foot site. By August 2009, city officials announced that 67 percent of the subcontracts awarded for construction had gone to businesses owned by minorities and women. In addition, Kelly/Maiello noted that 70 percent of the contracts awarded for the design and content phase of the project had gone to minority- and women-owned firms.
“But is it enough if you want all the jobs?” Miller asks.
Two Narberth firms—general contractor Daniel J. Keating Company and world-renowned lighting designer Grenald Waldron Associates—also are among the major players. Because of the tensions, and despite repeated efforts over several months, neither company would comment on its involvement in the project for this story.
As the project has evolved, the biggest controversy has centered around the interpretive component. Some don’t like the notion of an outdoor venue. Others say the planned walls of text will be overbearing. Do you stress the first two presidencies, or focus on the tension over the slaves? Or can—and should—there be a dynamic combination of the two?
Almost a year ago, in December 2009, a new interpretative team led by Jerry Eisterhold & Associates took over. The name behind the new standing exhibit at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Eisterhold hired renowned historian Gary Nash to write the text and the Smithsonian Institution’s Spencer Crew to design the exhibit.
“The key question is, ‘How do you represent [George] Washington?’” Miller says. “He’s a symbol. He was our first president, but he was also a slaveholder, and he had slaves when he was busy working out the meaning of freedom. Some want to dismiss Washington as a slaveholder only. But if so, do you dismiss the storyline? The contrast [of themes] plays out visibly—viscerally—right there, right then, in the very formative years of the republic.”
ATAC’s Shirley Parham, a professor emeritus at Cheyney University, says the Philadelphia public school curriculum has never taught that African Americans did anything in Philadelphia until the 1960s. She would know. One of her long-term appointments was teaching at the African American Museum in Philly. (She also spent 35 years as a public school teacher.)
Parham says there isn’t a people or a culture in what became our democracy that “didn’t ride the back of enslaved African Americans.”
“There’s no way this area could have been settled without African-American slaves,” Parham contends. “Yes, the first capital of the United States was built by enslaved Africans.”
Parham says it was always known that Washington had slaves. Quite simply, the local cover-up exists because neither the federal government, the city nor anyone else wants to besmirch Washington’s image or alter Philadelphia’s claim to fame as the home of freedom.
Rosalyn J. McPherson, who’s on contract with the city as the project manager, says the content of the first interpretation plan failed to meet the approval of the mayor’s oversight committee, a board of seven that represents various constituencies. Ultimately, the final say now rests with Mayor Michael Nutter and the National Park Service.
“The first [interpretive] effort was less than creative and almost offensive,” McPherson says. “Those plans just didn’t pass muster. So we hit the pause button, reflected and reviewed, and added another creative team—one that was more well-versed and took a new approach.”
And for good reason. “This is unparalleled—slavery and freedom side by side in a city built on the heels of liberty,” says McPherson.
Now that the country has elected its first African-American president, no one can deny the present historical irony. “We’ve come full circle,” McPherson says. “It’s an example of history lost and found. We’re always discovering new history in places where we thought we knew it all.”
McPherson notes a “creative synergy” between the increase in federal park sites with African-American ties, the pending President’s House site and Obama’s presidency. Attendance is up 22 percent at those sites, she says, while overall attendance at federal parks and public places is down.
If anything, what finally pushed progress on the President’s House was the expiration of use-it-or-lose-it funds from the city and federal government. “The controversy sparked it, and kept it going, but the delays and the controversy will be the reason it succeeds,” Miller says. “It is a paradox, but America is a paradox—and that’s the entire theme here. There’s dissension between freedom and unfreedom, and it’s contentious. But that’s what distinguishes us and makes us a great people.”
As for the split among the activist groups, Parham says the ATAC—which was founded by attorney Michael Coard—believes in communication and compromise. “[Generations Unlimited] wants to demonstrate and scream,” she says. “For us, this is solely about getting the marker and getting the story told. It’s not about ego or showing how tough we can speak. For us, this is just the beginning. Of this, we are certain.”
Parham’s own great-grandfather was enslaved on the eastern shore of Maryland. He fought for the U.S. Colored Troops, who were trained in Philadelphia, during the Civil War. “The books say our people were given freedom—but that’s not true,” she says. “They fought for freedom. They may have been in separate regiments, but they fought the same battle.”
To learn more, visit ushistory.org.