Ceremony marked place of freedom, bondage

Mukasa Afrika pours sand from the banks of the Nile River onto the foundation of the President's House. Yesterday's ceremony marked the end of the archaeological dig. Officials and an oversight panel are to decide the next step for the site.

Under a hot July sun, droplets of water drawn from the Nile soothed baked Philadelphia clay at the bottom of a great pit at Sixth and Market Streets - a blessing for the earth and for the dead. River water was followed by ancient Nile sand, glistening grains of the African continent trickling down onto the hard New World.

The libation yesterday was part of a ceremony marking the formal close of the President's House excavation, an archaeological undertaking that captured the public imagination and wouldn't let go.

For four months, archaeologists sifted through Independence Mall soil, uncovering evidence of the home where slave-owning George Washington and antislavery John Adams lived and launched American democracy in the 1790s and where Washington held nine Africans in bondage.

Archaeologists uncovered the rear foundation of the house in early May, about a month after the dig began. Then, in quick succession, remnants of a great bow window Washington installed, the kitchen where his slaves toiled, and an underground passage used by slaves and servants were also discovered.

More than 300,000 visitors watched the process from a public viewing platform and discussed the now-visible relationship between freedom and slavery at the heart of the nation's founding.

The site will now be temporarily re-covered with earth to protect the resources while the city, the National Park Service, and the public try to determine what the next step will be.

Joyce Wilkerson, Mayor Street's chief of staff, said a decision should be forthcoming by early September, if not sooner.

"We didn't expect to find any of this," she said yesterday, referring to the bow window, thought to be a precursor of the oval-shaped rooms in the White House, and the kitchen and passageway foundations. "It is so powerful, particularly the [proximity] of the kitchen and the bow window."

The libation ceremony, conducted by Ayoka Quinones and Mukasa Afrika, specifically honored the nine slaves held by Washington at the site - Hercules, Oney Judge, Paris, Richmond, Austin, Moll, Joe, Giles and Christopher Sheels.

After each name was spoken, voices in the crowd shouted "Ashe" - Amen.

Small brass plates engraved with the names of the enslaved were placed inside the kitchen foundation and sprinkled with earth; two 2007 quarters, one with the image of Washington, the other featuring Adams, were placed near the bow window and similarly covered lightly with earth.

Jed Levin, a Park Service archaeologist, called the four-month dig incredible - not simply, he said, because of the unexpected findings of kitchen and passageway and bow window, but because of the way the findings exposed the relationship of liberty and bondage.

"To this day," he told the crowd of several hundred gathered around the site in front of the Liberty Bell Center, "that passageway gives me shivers."

"It says something about the hierarchical nature of the 18th century, and it tells us something about those who toiled" there.

Michael Coard, a lawyer and a leader of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a community group that has pushed the Park Service to address the human issues embedded in the site, said yesterday was a "sad day" and likened the President's House to a rose.

"A rose is beautiful and soft, but a rose has thorns that are ugly and painful," he said. "The rose we are talking about is freedom, which is beautiful. The thorn we're talking about is slavery, which is very, very, very ugly."

For the moment, the site is still exposed, and it is still possible to view the uncovered 18th-century building remnants. Officials said that a temporary covering of earth would be put in place, possibly by the beginning of next week.

City and park officials, as well as members of an official "oversight committee" composed of community members, historians, and public and institutional officials, are discussing what the next step will be.

Congress has appropriated $3.5 million for a memorial for the President's House and the Africans held there. The city has kicked in $1.5 million and has paid for the archaeological work done under contract by URS Corp., which has run to about $800,000.

Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, winner of the memorial design competition, did not anticipate incorporating archaeological findings into its design. But those findings and the public response to them have compelled everyone to rethink what should be done.

Yesterday, Emmanuel Kelly, principal of the Philadelphia design firm, said a variety of options were being explored, including keeping the site open as it is, creating two separate levels of memorial, and installing viewing portals and glass floors. It will take at least another month, he said, to get a clear picture of costs and options.

For video (including yesterday's events), photos, articles, and related information, go to http://go.philly.com/dig

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.