This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the dedication of The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation. The open-air monument is located adjacent to the Liberty Bell Pavilion and atop the foundations of the residence that housed the first two presidents of the United States.
The memorial on the southeast corner of 6th and Market Streets is now a familiar element of the landscape of Independence Mall. In the era of the New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Black Lives Matter movement, it comes as no surprise that most of the information conveyed at the site centers on the lives of the people enslaved by George Washington rather than on the presidential terms of Presidents Washington and John Adams.
Looking back at the process that led to the creation of the monument, however, reveals that the existence and historical interpretation within the President’s House memorial can be considered a second Miracle at Philadelphia.
The House That Slavery Built
The residence that became known as the President’s House was built in 1767 by Mary Masters, the widow of one of Philadelphia’s leading owners of enslaved people. When her daughter married Richard Penn, Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania and grandson of William Penn, Masters gave the house to the newlyweds who lived there until they chose to leave for England when America claimed independence.
During the period of British occupation of Philadelphia, the house became home and military headquarters for General Sir William Howe. Once the Redcoats were chased out of the city, Military Governor Benedict Arnold moved in and within months began plotting to reveal secrets to the British.
The next resident, financier and former slave trader Robert Morris, greatly expanded the original house. George Washington was a frequent guest, including for four months during the summer of 1787 when he was attending the Constitutional Convention. When the national capital moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790, Morris offered his home as the Executive Mansion.
Although Morris’ house was one of the largest in the city, President Washington expanded it even further to accommodate his household that included First Lady Martha Washington, two grandchildren, five office staff, and 24 “servants.” Washington did not use the term “slave,” but we know that nine enslaved people worked and slept in Washington’s Philadelphia residence.
By the time the Washingtons moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act was 10 years old. According to this law, enslaved people brought from out of state would be automatically freed after six months. Owners of the enslaved skirted this law by sending their human property across state lines just as the six-month mark was approaching and then starting the clock over again upon their return to Pennsylvania. In 1788, the legislature closed this loophole stating explicitly that “all and every slave and slaves who shall be brought into this state, by persons inhabiting or residing therein, or intending to inhabit or reside therein, shall be immediately considered, deemed and taken to be free, to all intents and purposes.”
President Washington flagrantly violated both the spirit of the 1780 law and the letter of the 1788 amendment. He claimed that he was still a resident of Virginia and made sure that neither he, nor any of the people he enslaved, stayed in Pennsylvania for more than six months in a row. During his stay in the President’s House, Washington gradually replaced the enslaved staff with indentured servants, but by the time he retired to Mount Vernon, he still held two in bondage in Philadelphia.
Moreover, it was while Washington lived in the President’s House that he signed the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law that authorized local government officials to capture and return escapees to their owners and penalized people who gave them assistance.
A Path to Freedom for Ona Judge
Engraved on a marble slab at the President’s House Memorial are the names of the nine people known to have been enslaved in Washington’s Philadelphia home: Moll, Christopher Sheels, Richmond, Giles, Austin, Paris, Joe, Hercules, and Ona Judge.
Of these, we know the most about Ona, aka Oney, Judge. She was born into slavery at Mt. Vernon and served as Martha Washington’s personal maid both in New York and Philadelphia. She was trusted by the Washingtons and was thus able to mingle with members of the burgeoning free Black community of Philadelphia when out doing errands for the household.
When Ona learned she was to be given as a wedding gift to a temperamental granddaughter of Martha Washington, she fled the President’s House at the age of 20, almost certainly with the help of the free Blacks she had befriended. Aboard Captain John Bowles’ sloop Nancy, Judge escaped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where she lived the rest of her life out of bondage, yet never officially free. Washington, stung by this perceived betrayal, continued to pursue Ona until his death.
Learn more about Ona Judge’s path to freedom. Video courtesy of Making History Productions.
In 1845, Ona Judge was interviewed by an abolitionist newspaper. She revealed that her life in Portsmouth had been difficult. Her husband died only seven years after their marriage and she could not afford to support her three children, two of whom pre-deceased her. And yet, she never regretted fleeing her relatively comfortable enslavement in the Washington household for a life of poverty and toil in New Hampshire.
A path of bronze footsteps embedded in the stone floor of the President’s House Memorial symbolizes her brave escape.
When Washington left office in 1797, John Adams became the next resident of the President’s House. Adams and his son John Quincy were the only two of the first 12 U.S. presidents that did not own slaves. Although the national capital was supposed to move to the banks of the Potomac, leaders in Pennsylvania tried mightily to keep the capital in Philadelphia. A mansion three times the size of the President’s House was constructed on 9th Street as a luxurious abode for the nation’s chief executive. Adams, however, could not be enticed to decamp to this grand residence, even when the city doubled the rent on the President’s House as a way to force the move. In December of 1800, he became the first president to inhabit the White House in Washington, D.C.
The Philadelphia President’s House was sold and initially became a hotel. As the area became increasingly commercial, the building was purchased in 1832 by hardware merchant Nathaniel Burt who converted the once elegant dwelling into three stores on the ground level with a boarding house on the floors above. Burt and his descendants owned the property for over a century. Oak Hall, John Wanamaker’s first store, was built directly adjacent to the former President’s House.
Although the facade of the building was significantly altered, some of the original walls were still in place until 1951 when the entire structure was demolished to make room for Independence Mall. A public restroom was built on the site. A small plaque indicated that the toilet facility sat atop the former home of presidents.
A Series of Fortunate Events
This ludicrous 20th century misuse of the President’s House site was corrected thanks to the collective efforts of 21st century historians, journalists, activists, and politicians.
In late 2000, an archeological dig revealed that the site of a new Liberty Bell Center overlapped some of the outbuildings of the President’s House. By January of 2002, construction was well under way when a bombshell revelation about the location of the new structure came out in the winter issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. An article by independent historian Edward Lawler meticulously presented information about the architecture and appearance of the President’s House. Among his findings, he wrote “The last thing that a visitor will walk across or pass before entering the Liberty Bell Center will be the slave quarters that George Washington ordered added to the President’s House.”
When Lawler approached the National Park Service about including this information at the Liberty Bell’s new home, he was rebuffed. UCLA historian Gary Nash shared Lawler’s view that slavery adjacent to the Liberty Bell could not go unmarked. While promoting a new book about the Liberty Bell, Nash was interviewed by Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY’s Radio Times.
Public reaction to this perceived whitewashing of history was swift and angry. Journalists including Stephen Salisbury and Inga Saffron at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Bruce Schimmel at the City Paper put the issue in front of an even larger audience. Eventually the controversy gained national press attention.
An ad hoc group of historians led by Nash and including Saint Joseph’s University’s Randall Miller, Charlene Mires of Rutgers University, and Moravian College’s Rosalind Remer pushed the National Park Service to acknowledge the connection between slavery and the Liberty Bell site.
Outside of the ivory tower, a powerful grassroots movement developed. African American attorney Michael Coard formed the Avenge the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) to push for a plan to recognize the lives of the enslaved. ATAC’s strategies included letter writing campaigns, media appearances, and petition drives. Charles Blockson, historian extraordinaire at Temple University and unofficial dean of local Black history, also took up the fight. This and the work of other African American scholars informed the activists who Coard describes as “angry Black folks from the hood.” July 3rd demonstrations at the President’s House site became annual ATAC-led events.
Dwight Pitcaithley, the chief historian of the National Park Service, agreed with his university counterparts and publicly decried his agency’s intention to ignore the glaring juxtaposition of slavery and freedom. In May 2002 he organized a consortium of historians and activists to revise the interpretive perspective planned for the Liberty Bell Center.
Beyond the Liberty Bell
Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the academics, activists, and journalists, pressure mounted for even more attention to be paid to the President’s House site and the lives of its enslaved inhabitants. ATAC’s outreach efforts to Black politicians paid off when Philadelphia City Council and the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed resolutions pressing the National Park Service to come up with a plan. The House Appropriations Committee directed the National Park Service to study the President’s House site. In 2003 Mayor John Street announced that the City would put $1.5 million into a slavery memorial at Independence Mall and two years later Congressman Chakka Fattah and Bob Brady secured $3.6 million in federal funds.
Another key to the eventual success of the President’s House project was that the leadership of Independence National Historical Park transitioned. Although her predecessor had resisted efforts to tell the story of slavery in the President’s House, Park Superintendent Cindy McLeod became an ally to the activists.
The first design for the President’s House memorial was presented at a public session at the African American Museum in 2003. The largely Black crowd vociferously rejected the plan which failed to fully acknowledge the site’s connection to slavery. Black-owned architecture firm Kelly Maiello won a competition for the new design.
Emanuel Kelly’s innovative monument broadly represents the structure and dimensions of the President’s House and features reenactments displayed on video monitors perched above brick walls resembling fireplaces. The vignettes, including one about Ona Judge, were written by Lorene Carey and filmed by Louis Massiah.
Before construction, an archeological dig at the site garnered much public attention, particularly because it revealed structures still in place that would have been used by the enslaved residents. A clear plexiglass panel was incorporated into the monument to leave part of the excavation visible.
Finally, on a bitterly cold December morning in 2010, the site was dedicated. Within less than a decade, the National Park Service had pivoted from rejecting any mention of slavery to accepting a plan that puts the experience of the enslaved at the forefront. Had a President’s House memorial been built without the persistent involvement of academics, members of the media, and groups of activists, this painful history would have been obscured. It is to everyone’s benefit, in spite of the discomfort it might cause, to challenge us to contemplate the contradictions inherent in our founding as a nation of liberty in which slavery was widespread.
I recently asked ATAC founder Michael Coard to reflect on the 10th anniversary of the President’s House monument on Independence Mall. “There is nothing more productive,” Coard said, “than telling the truth about the sad past in order to lay the foundation for a happy future.” I couldn’t agree more.