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First in the Hearts of his Countrymen? Bringing George Washington's Philadelphia Slave History to Light

Philadelphia--When historians started digging into the facts about the first "White House," where President George Washington lived when Philadelphia was the nation's capital, they dredged up more than just mundane data.

They also dredged up the seamy saga of the first president's slave legacy here in the "Cradle of Liberty," where the hero of America’s Revolution brought nine of his house slaves, only to see them embarrass him by trying desperately to escape from bondage.

At high noon on December 15, 2010, hundreds of people, including Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter and other dignitaries, brushed off bone-chilling cold to participate in a controversial yet truly historic event – the grand opening the first monument to slavery ever erected on federal property.

That monument is among the elements in the eclectic mix of items comprising a new exhibit at Philadelphia’s storied Independence National Historic Park that honors the mansion where America’s first two presidents – George Washington and John Adams – lived while in office.

Philadelphia served as the capital of the United States from December 1790 until May 1800.
That multi-media exhibit, entitled “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” is the result of an eight-year battle over how best to both commemorate the nation’s first White House while recognizing the role of slavery inside that house and the nation as a whole.
Washington's Philadelphia slaves memorialized on Independence Mall (photo by Linn Washington)Washington's Philadelphia slaves memorialized on Independence Mall (photo by Linn Washington)

The National Park Service initially objected to recognizing either slavery or the first White House. While some people bristled at the inclusion of any mention of slavery in the context of the nation’s first White House, many others insisted on highlighting this buried part of American history.

“It is a visual history lesson designed to inspire examination of a dark period in our nation’s history as well as inspiring our hope and vision for true freedom,” said U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Philadelphia) said in a prepared statement. Fattah along with Philadelphia congressional colleague Bob Brady (D-Philadelphia) helped secure initial funding for the $8-million dollar project. Philadelphia’s former Mayor John Street jumped started the project in 2003 with a million dollars in funding plus allocating staff to the project.

America’s first President, George Washington, kept nine slaves inside that mansion, two of whom escaped to freedom through assistance from politically active free blacks living in Philadelphia.

Washington, the army general who led America’s fight for freedom, spent the waning years of his life making determined but unsuccessful efforts to recapture one of those escaped slaves, his wife’s maid Oney Judge, who lived out her long life free in New Hampshire.

story | by Dr. Radut