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Tell slaves' story truthfully

Work at Washington's house gives a chance to set history right.

Karen Warrington
Karen WarringtonRead more

By Karen Warrington

Ever thought about the educators who taught you, your parents, your children or your grandchildren about American history - without ever mentioning that George Washington had slaves?

Ever think about how many years you walked past Sixth and Market Streets with no clue that the father of our country kept at least nine Africans enslaved at that site, in what we now call the President's House?

Millions of people have visited the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, only to walk away not knowing, or understanding, the story of slavery on this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

We've all come a long way since reading the first articles about the President's House. We have come a long way since the first meetings at the African American Museum and in a hall across from the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia. A long way since we debated the issue on WHAT radio.

But, make no mistake, we have a long way to go.

We have gotten this far only because the community has never given up its demand that this story, unearthed in significant artifacts, should not be overlooked again. The community's insistence fired up Rep. Bob Brady, Rep. Chaka Fattah, then-Rep. Joe Hoeffel, and Mayor Street, as well as Mayor-elect Michael Nutter. And a meeting of the minds has brought the project to an important juncture.

The President's House project, however, will be a success only if the stories of those enslaved men and women are told - and told correctly.

While I serve as Rep. Brady's representative on the President's House Oversight Committee that was convened by Mayor Street, I have a deep, personal connection to this project. My grandmother and grandfather fled the South and never shared the full story of the struggles and indignities they left behind. Subsequently, I have learned to fill in the painful blanks. And my understanding of American history allows me to know that I am a descendant of the Africans who were bound and chained by the American and Caribbean slave trade, a crime against humanity.

The telling-of-the-story phase of the President's House project is just as important as the archeological phase or the design phase. We all must remain vigilant because we have to break the mold of the images of enslaved blacks in history books, some of which remain on library shelves, depicting them as happy, nappy, unsmart and docile.

The project must tell the stories of the intelligence and strategies utilized by blacks to escape the horror of slavery, and the role of the many free blacks who lived near the President's House in 19th-century Philadelphia.

The project has to help us understand how, after fleeing the clutches of Washington, Oney Judge spent the rest of her life eluding slave catchers and living in fear that she would be snatched back from freedom.

These stories must be told because they inform all of us: those who are the descendants of the enslaved and those who benefited from the commerce of slavery. And I'm not talking about showing pictures of smiling blacks dressed up in colonial garb and speaking in the predictable "lawdy be, massa" speech, with no thought of the amalgam of the languages those kidnapped Africans spoke.

This summer, we stood on the wooden platform and watched the archeological excavation of the site and saw with our own eyes the architectural remains of the house. Those were powerful moments!

Today, visitors to the corner of Sixth and Market can still see the platform, but the excavation site is back-filled and covered with an innocuous patch of green grass with no clue to its history. This is a telling reminder as to how easily history can be obscured from view.

That's why we have to make sure that this project goes forward and the correct stories are told. We have clearly seen how history, right in the epicenter of the struggle for the freedom of a nation, can be buried and erased from our collective consciousness.