Historian brings George Washington's slaves into national spotlight
Crowds gather in mid-December for the official opening of the President's House in Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. UCLA historian Gary Nash sparked a grassroots campaign to have the nation recognize the role of slaves in this early version of the White House, where President George Washington and his family lived.
One ignominious fact about the father of our country that’s been lost in the shadows of history is that President George Washington and his family once kept nine slaves when they lived in an early version of the White House, located not in Washington, D.C., but in Philadelphia.
In fact, this presidential residence once stood where the Liberty Bell now hangs.
When the National Park Service was gearing up in 2002 to build the Liberty Bell Center to commemorate the history of the bell, UCLA historian Gary Nash immediately recognized the connection and the potential for a teachable moment for the country.
A depiction of slaves in President Washington's household. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
“Here in the City of Brotherly Love was a golden opportunity to tell a fascinating story that almost no one knew about, but the park service was going to bury it,” recalled Nash, a professor emeritus of history, an authority on early America and Philadelphia and the author of a 2010 book on the history of the Liberty Bell
. “That disturbed me.”
So Nash set in motion a grassroots campaign to tell the story of the original executive residence and the enslaved Africans who toiled there from 1790 to 1797. To gather support for this effort, Nash co-founded a group of Philadelphia historians and heads of the city’s cultural institutions who lobbied the National Park Service.
“I was the chief raiser of dust,” said Nash, who grew up in nearby Merion, Pa., with a laugh.
Thanks to Nash and others, an estimated two million visitors annually will learn the truth about slavery and the presidency through the memorial, for which Nash served as an historical adviser.
History Professor Gary Nash.
“As a native son of Philadelphia, I feel the park service has done something very, very important here, and millions of people are going to learn a lot about stories they haven’t been told,” he said. “A whole cloud of historical amnesia is being swept away.”
With Black History Month and President’s Day (Feb. 21) occurring this month, February is expected to be a particularly busy time at the memorial. An actor will present live portrayals of Oney Judge, one of the slaves who served the Washingtons, and special tours will be given of Underground Railroad sites in Philadelphia. At 17, Judge famously used her contacts with free Philadelphia blacks to escape to freedom.
The President’s House Memorial stands where the original three-story brick executive residence once did, one block from Independence Hall where the Liberty Bell once hung and founding fathers hashed out the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Consisting of an arrangement of architectural features that trace the residence’s original footprint, the open-air memorial tells the story of its inhabitants and their era. Where windows would originally have looked out onto the historic intersection of Sixth and Market streets, glass panes have been incised by artists to identify important moments in the turbulent 1790s: the French Revolution, the funeral of Benjamin Franklin, the signing of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act meant to suppress opposition press, and the outbreak of yellow fever.
Over stylized fireplaces hang flat-screen televisions where visitors can learn about the five best-known enslaved Africans who served the first family, most notably Judge, who was Martha Washington’s personal attendant, and Hercules, the family’s prized chef. Like Judge, Hercules took advantage of Pennsylvania’s status as a free state and home to the largest population of free blacks in the nation during Washington’s administration.
Occupants of the President's House included, from the top, John Adams; Hercules, the chef; and George Washington.
The memorial also illuminates the results of a 2008-09 archaeological excavation of the site. Initiated as a result of public interest stimulated by Nash, other historians and African American leaders, the excavation revealed an underground passage between the residence and a stable. Archaeologists believe it was used by the slaves, who slept in the stable.
“Here, in the cradle of liberty, freedom and slavery were fighting it out right in the presidential household,” Nash said. “The story was too good not to be told.”
But the National Park Service didn’t see it that way initially. Park officials originally argued that if the story of the executive residence were to be told, it should be told elsewhere, fearing that too much information, presented in one place, would leave visitors confused.
Ironically, “the old bell,” as the beloved icon was originally known, served as “a potent symbol of not just liberty but also of the abolitionist movement,” said Nash.
In fact, the bronze behemoth remained pretty much been forgotten until 1835, when abolitionists took inspiration from the biblical verse inscribed on the bell: “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants there of.” The movement then adopted the 2000 pounds of unstable metal as its symbol and dubbed it the Liberty Bell.
The executive residence epitomized a completely different ethos. The poshest home in Philadelphia in the 1790s, it was once the residence of Robert Morris, a wealthy merchant and slave trader who was known as the ‘financier of the American Revolution.’
Washington, who was actually ambivalent to slavery, nonetheless brought slaves there from his Mt. Vernon home and plantation when he became president. Under Pennsylvania law, any enslaved person who resided in the state for six months must be freed. To discreetly sidestep the law, the Washingtons returned their African slaves to Mt. Vernon in Virginia every six months, Nash said.
Visitors walk through the memorial. Nash not only wrote material for the historic exhibition, but served as a consultant to firms hired to design the exhibits.
When John Adams, the nation’s second president, moved into the Philadelphia executive mansion, he did not bring slaves with him. The residence ceased to house presidents when the District of Columbia became the nation’s capital in 1800. The home was gutted in 1832 and finally demolished without a trace in 1951.
Nash was just the person to raise public awareness of this nearly lost episode in history. He is the author 26 books on the American Revolution, Philadelphia and the role of race and class in the fledgling nation. In addition, he is the co-founder of the UCLA-based National Center for History in the Schools, which develops K-12 history curriculum with a multicultural bent. He also served on the National Park Service’s Second Century Commission, a blue-ribbon panel convened in 2008 to update the agency’s guiding principles and set an agenda for the future.
The guidelines endorsed by the commission call for addressing the complete past of historic sites, however painful and contradictory.
After the National Park Service agreed to build the President’s House Memorial alongside the Liberty Bell Center, Nash became a historic consultant to two private firms hired to design the exhibits. He also wrote the captions for the glass panels and participated in drafting other museum text on the themes of freedom and slavery, and the role of the executive branch in the tumultuous 1790s. He also helped engage the local community in the development of the memorial. Although the project faced frequent disputes and lengthy delays, Nash believes it was worth the extra effort.
“A lot of people are going to walk away saying, ‘Oh boy, I found out a lot of things I didn’t know, and I’m just amazed how much happened here in the 1790s!”