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Oppressed lives, open house

Site honoring Washington and his slaves ready for dedication.

Archaeologists (from left) Jed Levin, Matthew Harris, and Tod Benedict uncover the excavated President’s House foundation, which had been protected during construction. George Benigno, a mason, cleans over them at ground level. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Archaeologists (from left) Jed Levin, Matthew Harris, and Tod Benedict uncover the excavated President’s House foundation, which had been protected during construction. George Benigno, a mason, cleans over them at ground level. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

After more than eight years of street demonstrations, arguments, haggling, and missed deadlines; after unprecedented public debate about the impact of slavery on life in Philadelphia and the United States and on the life and moral character of George Washington; after thousands of news articles, feature stories, and TV and radio programs, the site marking the intertwined lives of presidents and slaves is set to open to the public with a simple ribbon-cutting at noon Wednesday.

It may be snowing or raining. It may be bitterly cold. The public may be distracted by the holidays. President Obama will not be there on Independence Mall. No matter.

"President's House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation" is done, and project managers say that given all the talk, sweat, and sometimes-rancorous disagreement that have gone into it, what's done should be open and seen.

"It's either the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end," said Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph's University who has been involved for the whole length of the winding, bumpy road leading to the doorway of the President's House.

"Finally, the public will get to weigh in," he said, on whether the memorial has found the right balance in evoking two presidents and commemorating nine slaves.

Clay Armbrister, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, called the site virtually iconic at birth.

Not only does it define the small piece of ground at Sixth and Market Streets where Presidents Washington and John Adams lived, but it focuses on the enslaved Africans held by Washington at the house, which was largely demolished in 1832.

Behind the site, a few feet from the Liberty Bell Center's entrance, an enclosure of glass, wood, and steel commemorates the nine.

"The installation in and of itself will do what educational exhibitions are meant to do - provoke thought and debate - and I think there will be a lot of thought and debate," Armbrister said.

Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, acknowledged that mid-December was not the best time to open, but "to have it finished and not bring some attention to that would be unfortunate," she said.

"The exhibit really brings to the fore this dichotomy in our country of freedom and slavery," MacLeod said. "The Declaration of Independence at that time did not mean everyone. It took the Civil War to abolish slavery, and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s to make civil rights more of a reality in addition to freedom."

The city, which has managed design and construction since 2005, and Independence Park, which assumes responsibility for the $10.5 million project Wednesday, collaborated to create a stylized architectural echo of the house - not a reconstruction, though it generally hews to what is thought to be the house's footprint.

Designed by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, it tells a story of race and power at the very heart of the nation's birth.

Washington, owner of 300 slaves in Virginia, is seen in the context of the slave system, which elevated his wealth and brought him to the apex of power.

"It was a piece of history that needed to be on the table. We needed to tell the truth," said Joyce Wilkerson, who was Mayor John F. Street's chief of staff when he committed the city and $1.5 million to the project in 2003.

"We have this Disneyland view of how the country came to be founded that just isn't true," said Wilkerson, now head of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. "This country was built on the backs of workers who were enslaved. It was built on the backs of Native Americans, who were exterminated. It's not pretty. It's not a pretty history.

"Part of the achievement is to acknowledge that," she said. "For me it really was about avenging the ancestors so that little black kids would know that there were black people around at the beginning who contributed."

The President's House is believed to be the first federal commemoration of enslaved Africans. The stories of the nine kept there by Washington are rendered in short videos on screens throughout the site, in traditional text displays, and on painted glass panels.

Oney Judge, Christopher Sheels, Joe, Giles, Hercules, Paris, Moll, Richmond, Austin - the nine identified as working in the house - are symbolic stand-ins for all Africans entrapped by slavery in America.

More traditional historical material on Washington, Adams, and their families is prominently featured - riots in front of the President's House over the Jay Treaty (1795) with Britain, demonstrations in support of Adams' French policies (1798), the birth of political parties, and the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).

But there is also the story of Judge, personal servant to Martha Washington, who seized her freedom by running away in 1796. When Washington learned she was living in New Hampshire, he used his treasury secretary and other officials to try to force her return.

He failed. She remained free until her death in 1848 - in defiance of Washington, who had signed the nation's Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, in the President's House, just a few feet from where she once slept.

Did Judge regret her life of poverty? "No," she told an abolitionist interviewer. "I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means."

Her struggles and similar dramas - involving, for instance, Washington's famed chef, Hercules, who escaped a year after Judge and was never found - give this site a complicated and unsettling texture.

That should not be surprising, given the rocky history of a project rife with disputes from its beginnings in early 2002.

At that time, Independence Park was about to build a new home for the Liberty Bell when amateur architectural historian Edward Lawler Jr. published an article about the vanished executive mansion. In it, he pointed out that visitors to the bell's new home would walk over the unmarked spot where Washington quartered some of his slaves.

An account in The Inquirer about this deeply ironic juxtaposition led to demonstrations by African American activists and ultimately to legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) and passed by Congress requiring that the National Park Service "appropriately commemorate" the house and its enslaved residents.

Independence Park, pressed by historians and activists, reworked its Liberty Bell exhibits to more fully explain the bell's importance in the abolitionist and civil-rights movements. But a first attempt to create a commemoration for the house was shouted down at a withering public meeting in 2003.

The city stepped in to manage a new design process. Disagreements - within the black community, between blacks and whites, between historians and Park Service officials - smoldered on.

Then, in 2007, Street decided to conduct an archaeological excavation. It was a transformative event.

Park officials estimate that more than 300,000 people stopped to watch the work, learn about the site, and engage in conversations about race and slavery - conversations not often heard in the United States.

After the dig, an oversight committee, established in 2005 to review the site's plan, found itself divided.

Lawler, a committee member, believed the house's precise footprint was being violated. There were disputes over Washington as president and national leader, over the depictions of slavery, over the Jay Treaty and the importance of Haiti, among many other things. One interpretive team was replaced by another.

The resulting exhibition, by Eisterhold Associates of Kansas City, Mo., is a hard-fought effort to present both president and slaveholder, and renders slavery as the serpent in the garden at the nation's birth.

Karen Warrington, communications director for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, a Philadelphia Democrat, has pushed for inclusion of as much of the enslaved black experience as possible. As a committee member, she argued that the site was "permeated with slavery."

"Not all my points of view were accepted," she said. "But at the same time, there were voices at the table that usually are not at the table. So a lot of things got thrown up against the wall. Some stuck."

Lawler, still fretting over the footprint and modern design elements, said he worried that the memorial was open to criticism of being faked. He also said he believed there was not enough emphasis on Washington and Adams, which might expose the Park Service to controversy: Depending on their expectations, visitors could "be confused and possibly angry," he said.

Controversy doesn't concern Michael Coard, a founder of the activist group Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which pushed for the memorial. For him, it begins to redress generations of imbalance in the telling of the nation's story.

"When I was a kid at Masterman, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about slavery, but there was everything about the greatness of George Washington. In fact, he was deified and still is," Coard said. "But now the door is open for everybody. The little black boys, the little black girls, the little white boys, the little white girls."

Not everyone in the black community is satisfied. Activist Sacaree Rhodes, who has worked for years to ensure more equitable hiring of black workers and contractors on city and federal projects, is angered by the memorial.

Said Rhodes: "Where is the rape? Where is the brutality? Where are the shackles? Where are the ropes? Where are the dogs? I think they used kid gloves and were eager not to offend white people about the truth. I've always maintained that what they've done is a scandal and a shame. The first president of the United States peddled in human flesh, and that's no lie."

Miller, the historian, does not dispute that, but his apprehensions run in another direction. Have Washington's personal struggles with the issue of slavery been adequately rendered and connected to the larger struggle in the nation as a whole? Will a cardboard portrait of the president emerge?

"My concern is that this is not reduced to a morality play with George Washington all bad. He's not just another slaveholder. He's George Washington. That's what gives this place its power."

Not for everyone. For Rhodes, it is the Africans, long lost to history, who lend their power to the site.

"I hear their voices shouting out in pain," she said. "I feel their anger in my belly."