Confronting our History: A Monumental Challenge

July 1, 2020 | by Amy Cohen

During nationwide racial justice protests in late May and early June, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution in Washington Square, erected in 1954, was vandalized. The graffiti alleged that George Washington, a well-known slave owner, had committed genocide against Native Americans. | Image courtesy of Independence NHP, Edgar Allan Poe NHS & Thaddeus Kosciuszko NM

When I first proposed writing an Independence Day article about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution in Washington Square it was meant to be a fun piece. I planned to share some of the trivia and neat facts I had learned about this monument while doing research about Washington Square. Then George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police officers and protests erupted all over the United States. Writing a light story about a monument was no longer an option.

During the past few years, and the past few weeks in particular, monuments have been the focus of demonstrations, civil disobedience, news articles, opinion pieces, political discourse, and political action throughout the country. Philadelphia, of course, has seen the removal of former Mayor Frank Rizzo from the Municipal Services Building and the boxing in of Christopher Columbus both at Marconi Plaza and Penn’s Landing.

Monuments are consequential. They are a physical manifestation of choices made by the powerful about what and whom should be permanently honored.

Tensions between aggressive South Philly residents and peaceful protestors reached a violent boiling point in June over the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza. After two weeks and multiple attacks on activists by neighbors claiming to be protecting the monument, the City deemed the situation a public safety risk on June 16 and boxed up the statue. A request from the City to remove the statue has been submitted to the Philadelphia Art Commission and a decision will be made on July 22. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Until the erection of the Octavius V. Catto memorial on the south side of City Hall in 2018, Black residents of Philadelphia could not walk by a statue of an individual African American figure on any public land in the city. It is not surprising that this new landmark was the venue for several of the protests and vigils that followed the police murder of George Floyd.

Although the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution and its accompanying statue of George Washington have not attracted the same level of controversy as Rizzo or Columbus, the monument was vandalized with graffiti during the upheaval of May and June.

Let’s examine the history of the monument and then consider the reasons it may have been targeted by angry people with cans of spray paint.

The Monument

This lithograph from 1838 gives a bird’s-eye view of Washington Square, originally named Southeast Square, and points south from the steeple of Independence Hall (Pennsylvania State House). Efforts to transform the square from a potter’s field and burial ground for Revolutionary War soldiers to a public park began in 1819. The park was renamed Washington Square in 1825. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

The area we know as Washington Square was originally laid out as Southeast Square in William Penn and Thomas Holmes’ plan for the city. It was used as a potter’s field for more than a century. At different points during the Revolutionary War, American and then British prisoners of war were housed in the Walnut Street Jail that ran along the square’s eastern edge. Conditions were so terrible that thousands of soldiers were buried in the adjacent potter’s field.

In 1825, when the field had been transformed into the center of a stylish residential neighborhood, the park was officially named Washington Square. In 1833, City Council approved the erection of a George Washington statue in the square, but sufficient funds were never raised. It would take another 124 years to bring Washington to Washington Square.

For much of the 19th century the streets lining the square were almost entirely residential. As commerce and city government moved westward toward City Hall, the city’s elite moved to Rittenhouse Square and the streetcar suburbs. During the first decades of the 20th century, many elegant townhouses were demolished.

Most were replaced with the headquarters of publishing companies like Lippincott, Curtis, W.B. Saunders, the Farm Journal, and Lea & Febiger. The Penn Mutual Insurance Company and the advertising firm N. W. Ayer & Sons were other businesses located in office buildings on the site.

Aerial view looking north of Washington Square and the Curtis Building. Date unknown. | Image courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Jane Jacobs vividly and damningly describes Washington Square in her 1961 classic, The Life and Death of Great American Cities: “…the center of an area that was at one time the heart of downtown, but is now specialized as a massive office center—insurance companies, publishing, advertising. Several decades ago Washington Square became Philadelphia’s pervert park, to the point where it was shunned by office lunchers and was an unmanageable vice and crime problem to park workers and police.”

The square had deteriorated so badly that in the mid-1950s it was closed and overhauled as part of the broader effort by city planner Edmund Bacon, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, and other city leaders to bring urban renewal to Society Hill and Washington Square West. The vision included emphasizing the colonial charm of the area. The time had finally arrived to put George Washington in Washington Square.

Prominent architect and preservationist G. Edwin Brumbaugh designed the refurbished park. Brumbaugh was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, and a winner of the Arthur Spayd Brooke medal, an honor that was also earned by Julian Abele and Louis Kahn. Brumbaugh’s additions to Washington Square included Franklin-style lampposts, a central circular fountain, and a large memorial on the square’s western side. The purpose of the monument was to honor both George Washington and an unknown soldier from the Revolutionary War.

Finding an unknown soldier was no easy feat nearly 200 years after the American War for Independence. Archaeologists dug holes in several areas of the former potter’s field. The remains of a body with a dented skull–perhaps caused by a musket ball–was found and placed in a stone sarcophagus. Whether that body belonged to a British or American soldier, a victim of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, a pauper, or an African American laid to rest in the community’s longtime communal burial ground, may never be known. Nevertheless, a plaque in the sidewalk in front of the tomb reads, “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.” An eternal flame was installed in front of the plaque in 1976 for the nation’s bicentennial.

Drawing by the architecture firm of G. Edwin Brumbaugh of the George Washington statue, part of the war memorial in Washington Square. | Image courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

The bronze statue of Washington at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is a replica of a marble sculpture that sits in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. In 1784, the Virginia General Assembly commissioned a statue of George Washington. French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was chosen at the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale sent drawings of Washington to Houdon in France, but Houdon found these insufficient.

Houdon, Franklin, and several assistants set sail for Mt. Vernon where the sculptor took detailed measurements of Washington’s frame and made a life mask of his face. Houdon’s work is considered the most accurate depiction of our first president.

The granite wall behind the Washington statue isinscribed with an acknowledgement of the dead soldiers buried in the park and an excerpt from Washington’s farewell address. Large font across the top of the wall declares, “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.” A concise and catchy phrase. Both inspiring and pithy, as it should be. These are not the words of our first president, but rather of an advertising copywriter who worked on Washington Square.

Considering Vandalism

A lithograph depicting George Washington the farmer speaking to his slaves at Mount Vernon in 1797. Nathaniel Currier, 1852. | Image: Public Domain

It is on this wall that someone scrawled, “Committed GENOCIDE” in early June. I was confused by this accusation. As a former teacher of African American history, I know the following about George Washington: 

He and his wife Martha owned hundreds of enslaved people.  

When he came to Philadelphia to serve as president he brought with him several enslaved people to serve in the President’s House. In so doing, he violated both the spirit of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 as well as the letter of a 1788 addendum to that act.

In 1793, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring the return of the self-emancipated (i.e. runaway slaves) to their owners.

After 20-year-old Ona Judge fled enslavement at the President’s House in 1796, George Washington pursued her for the rest of his life.

For much more on Washington and slavery, be sure to visit the President’s House at 6th and Market Streets.

As I dug deeper, however, I did find some evidence that the graffiti was not necessarily off base. As a young man, Washington was a surveyor and a landowner eager to expand his holdings, often through one-sided negotiations with Indigenous inhabitants.

During the Revolutionary War, Washington hoped to maintain peace with Native Americans to prevent the Continental Army from diverting resources from the fight against the Redcoats. Most tribes, however, sided with the British. Native Americans, led by Loyalist rangers, launched several attacks against settlers in Western Pennsylvania and New York. In Cherry Valley, New York, 30 settlers, mostly women and children, were killed during a joint Iroquois and Loyalist invasion.

An engraving from the 1892 book A Popular History of the United States by William Cullen Bryant depicting the burning of a Native American village during the Sullivan Expeditions of 1779 that aimed to destroy the Iroquois. | Image: Public Domain

In retaliation, Washington organized a campaign to obliterate the Iroquois confederacy. General John Sullivan was ordered by Washington to assemble 5,000 Continental troops to “not merely overrun, but destroy” Iroquois settlements. “The immediate objects,” wrote Washington, “are the total destruction and devastation of these settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible.” Washington also specified that “you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected.”

As Sullivan’s troops advanced, they found recently abandoned villages which they burned to the ground along with cropland and orchards. After a month of pillaging through Iroquois territory, Sullivan’s troops reversed course, destroying any settlements or cropland they had missed on their westward trek.

In all, 40 Iroquois towns and villages were destroyed. The former inhabitants fled to British protection in Ontario where many died of starvation and exposure the following winter. According to Dartmouth professor Colin Calloway, the Sullivan Expedition was micromanaged by Washington who saw it as an opportunity not just for retribution, but also to claim this particularly fertile land which we now know as the Finger Lakes region of New York.

As president, Washington met frequently with Native American leaders who were considered visiting heads of state rather than American subjects. He attempted to purchase tribal land through bargaining, treaties, and offers to assimilate Indigenous people into American-style civilization. When he met resistance, Washington resorted to heavy handed tactics, explaining that “recalcitrant savages” had to be “extirpated” from their land. By the end of his life, Washington had appropriated vast swaths of Native American land, both for himself and for the new nation.

The National Park Service is working with a professional stone conservator to remove graffiti from the war memorial in Washington Square. A previous attempt to clean the porous limestone monument with steam cleaning and a non-abrasive solvent was partially successful. NPS expects remaining traces of the graffiti to fade in the coming weeks. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Perhaps Washington’s land-hungry and periodically murderous treatment of Indigenous people links him to the description of “committed GENOCIDE.” I would not have known the story of the Sullivan Expedition or anything else about Washington’s dealings with Native Americans had this graffiti never been sprayed. My hunch is that this information is new to you as well. I believe that knowing more about our past, especially the ugly parts, is a major key to moving forward.

I am not endorsing vandalism, but how would you feel as a Native American seeing a usurper of land and destroyer of your ancestor’s communities revered as a national hero?

Is revealing the unsavory aspects of George Washington’s relations with Native Americans important enough to justify spray paint?

Certainly food for thought as we celebrate our nation’s founding this Independence Day.


About the Author

Amy Cohen is an educator, historian, and writer. Her forthcoming book "Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy" will be published by Temple University Press.


  1. Matt Albertson says:

    Terrific overview. I spent serious time researching the Pennamite-Yankee Wars, of which the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Wyoming was a part. Sullivan’s March was in response to this and what happened at Cherry Springs, so I’m familiar with the ordesl to an extent. So, suggesting that Washington committed genocide isn’t inaccurate.

    I found the vandalism peculiar considering the monument in particular. First, this isn’t the only statue of Washington in the city nor is it the most recognizable. Perhaps it was the easiest to access? Second, and where I’ve been confused, is the monument is to an unknown soldier of the Revolutionary War. The individual is unknown. How can one say with any degree of accuracy that THAT person committed genocide?

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Good points; thanks for reading!

    2. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks for reading the article. Though the monument is to the Unknown Soldier, the statue is of Washington. I assume that is why it was targeted.

  2. James Clark says:

    Oh for the love of ……….. somebody. Does anyone think that ANY of our so called past heroes are all Lilly white and pure as the driven snow? Ah give it a rest will ya? It seems no one is happy these days unless they are digging up dirt on these people.

  3. Scott says:

    I find it unfortunate that the author exposed her bias in characterizing South Philadelphians as “aggressive” for protecting the Columbus statue from “peaceful” protestors many of whom stated their intention to tear down the statue. If this was the Catto statue and the roles were reversed, who would the author characterize as “aggressive”?

    1. Michael Bixler says:


      Writing photo captions is the undertaking of the editor of Hidden City. My characterizing the armed group at the Marconi Plaza that was “protecting” the Columbus statue as aggressive doesn’t even begin to describe how violent and hostile they were to both protesters and passerby. Individuals in the pro-Columbus group yelled ethnic and LGBT-related slurs at people and physically attacked a number of peaceful activists and journalists. This is a fact, not an opinion or a bias. In case you missed the news, read up on what actually happened here: https://www.inquirer.com/news/city-to-remove-columbus-statue-marconi-plaza-20200624.html



      1. Joan says:

        The “peaceful protesters” had previously expressed their opinions, via spray paint: “murderer” and “colonizer” on the statue of abolitionist Matthias Baldwin; “f**k black cops” on the statue of an American Indian figure in Logan Square; “acab” on the Civil War monument on the Parkway. There is no clear definition of “civil disobedience,” except for the fact that it involves breaking the law, so anything goes. Blocking 676? Firebombing a police car? Graffiti? You pick out which of these are “peaceful” protests and let me know. The South Philly neighbors were doing their best to protect their neighborhood against outside agitators, and could not rely on the police who could not protect even their own police cars.

      2. Joan says:

        Forgot to mention: using the Inquirer as a source for facts on the protests is a bit like using Das Kapital for your authoritative source on economics.

  4. john regula says:

    I am getting fed up with White Guilt being shoved in my face and down my throat. Life isn’t fair-never has been and never will be. That’s the way things were back then. Get over it.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Indeed things were unfair back then. The unfairness continues, particularly for the descendants of those who were enslaved. If white guilt is your only response to centuries of injustice, I suggest you do more reading about how racial inequality is baked into the American system to the detriment of ALL. I suggest taking a look at the work of economist Heather McGhee.

      1. john regula says:

        Baked into the American system? That comment tells me everything that I need to know about you. .

  5. Daniel Heneghan says:

    Consider the appropriateness of your alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, prominently hosting a memorial statue to Ben Franklin (the putative founder of the institution) in front of College Hall.

    Ben Franklin was a slave owner. Ben owned six of them. He freed the last late in life. He jumped on the abolitionist bandwagon conveniently late in life.His newspapers ran ads that bought/sold slaves, that put up notices of runaway slaves. It’s easy to pick on South Philly. Take your investigative, research and writing skills to the powerful. Punch up, not down.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thank you for reading my article. I am familiar with Ben Franklin’s history of slavery and late-life abolitionism. I could argue that Washington’s sins vis-a-vis slavery were much more egregious than Franklin’s. The more significant point, however, is that until we have an honest reckoning about the ways that our founders violated our founding ideals, racial justice will never be achieved.

  6. Frank Marano says:

    Dear Amy,
    Although your article about George Washington in hidden city was professionally written, I believe this type of article does nothing but continue to divide our country. As a historian, you of all people know that all great societies have violent beginnings and poor treatment of indigenous people. Even though you don’t approve of vandalism ,people like you are helping to fuel the violence, hatred and division that we are seeing today. With all your education you fail to see the damage that you and others like you are doing .

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my article. I believe that history is a conversation about the past. My argument is that we should have a full and nuanced understanding of our nation’s founding rather than the simplistic, heroic interpretation that has long been conveyed by textbooks, school curricula, mainstream history museums, and historical sites.

  7. Warren Williams says:

    I would argue that societies that want to know less about themselves, rather than more, are playing with fire. When Japanese officials deny their role in Chinese atrocities during WW2 we Americans are horrified yet we don’t want to be “divisive” in our own history. Leave the “Life of Saints” to religion.

  8. Laurie A Corson says:

    There was no need for the deep dive into Washington’s misdeeds. I knew the first moment I saw the graffiti that the perpetrators were simply morons. They thought it was a statue of Christopher Columbus.

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