How Philly's 'slavery memorial' acknowledges a Founding Father's flaws without denying his greatness

For President Trump, removing statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from their pedestals around the country marks the nation’s perilous launch down a slippery slope.

“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said at his now-famous news conference Tuesday after white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va.  “I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

How does one stop something that has not begun and that few, if any, have any interest in beginning?

“When you look at George Washington, when you look at Thomas Jefferson, I could say some horrible, truthful things about them,” said attorney and activist Michael Coard. “But one thing I could not say is that they are traitors to America. On the contrary, they were American patriots, founders of this country. The Confederacy and its leaders were traitors. They tried to overthrow the government. I’m no fan of Washington and Jefferson, but they were patriotic Americans.”

Camera icon Library Company of Philadlephia
“Washington’s Residence, High Street.” Lithograph by William L. Breton in John Fanning Watson’s “Annals of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia, 1830),  From The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography with permission of Ed Lawler Jr.

Coard’s views have some weight in this discussion because he was one of the driving forces behind creation of what is arguably the city’s answer to the slippery slope: the President’s House memorial on Independence Mall, Sixth and Market Streets.

Formally known as “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” this commemoration is a monument to the real, flawed George Washington, a memorial born in this century in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, nurtured through years of sometimes-heated community and committee meetings, but ultimately supported in all its imperfections, by black and white citizens when it opened in 2010.

“It’s the contemporary view of George Washington,” said Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Association for Public Art. “In general, monuments tell us more about the times they were made than about their subjects.”

But whether such a “contemporary view” would work with all statues is another matter. Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph’s University, thinks probably not. With relatively straightforward controversial figures like former Mayor Frank Rizzo or Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, Miller argues it makes sense just to take down the statues.

“It’s easier to remove the statue rather than use it as a touchstone to try to understand who and what we really believe in,” Miller argues.

Washington (and even Lee, for that matter) is full of “many meanings” that can help us understand who we are and where we’ve been, Miller said.

The President’s House – Coard calls it the slavery memorial – sits atop the spot where Washington and his presidential successor, John Adams, lived when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital during the last decade of the 18th century. Adams opposed slavery, but Washington had nine enslaved people living in his Philadelphia household at various times, a handful of the 300-plus he held at his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

The Washington presented in this memorial is depicted as part of the larger world of America, a flawed world dependent on racial bondage and subjugation for the creation of wealth. The memorial does not erase Washington, it expands him, making him more complex and relevant to a broader swath of citizens.

It was not until amateur historian Edward Lawler Jr. published a lengthy scholarly article on the long-demolished Washington residence in January 2002 that calls for a commemoration of some kind gained traction.

That push for commemoration came not from a desire to mythologize the nation’s first leader. Quite the opposite, Lawler pointed out that Washington housed his human chattel in a spot lying directly in front of what would be the new Liberty Bell Center, compelling visitors to cross over slave quarters to reach the home of the symbol of freedom.

This irony struck many as too horrific not to address.

In 2002, Coard organized the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition and began lobbying officials and holding street rallies — all to demand recognition for Washington’s enslaved people. This dovetailed with interests of historians.

“The real story is the American story of paradox – freedom in the context of slavery,” said Miller of St. Joe’s. “The President’s House provided an opportunity to confront our history, not to be afraid of it.”

Then-Mayor John F. Street threw city support behind the project and directed that committees be established to thrash out what a memorial might look like and say. A commemoration of Washington morphed into the story of the world of Washington.

“The President’s House project, in and of itself, was an example of how to address the omissions of history,” said Rosalyn J. McPherson, who managed the planning process for the project. “If you’re going to tell the story not told, you give an opportunity to people to have their voices heard. We had to take a hard look at our history and why these stories hadn’t been told.”

Enslaved Africans, women, and Native Americans are now memorialized at the site. Video and audio elements lend a visceral human element to the stories of the enslaved – Oney Judge, Hercules, Austin, Richmond, Moll, Paris, Giles, Joe, and Christopher Sheels.

Washington gains humanity and becomes real by his portrayal within the larger context. He becomes real because the site itself is real.

Here are the real lineaments of the house, the foundations of a bow window designed by Washington, (believed to be the very inspiration for the Oval Office), the foundations of the large kitchen (very much the world of indentured servants and the enslaved), and the remains of an underground passage used by the enslaved and servants to move unseen between the kitchen and main house.

An archaeological dig was conducted in 2007, and an estimated 300,000 people watched from an observation platform as archaeologists exposed Washington’s world. Conversations about what it meant to be black and white in America broke out spontaneously as people of all races gathered there.

For park archaeologist Jed Levin, the dig amounted to a “process of attempting to recover the hidden part of our hidden history and at the same time bring respect to people who had largely been ignored.”

Camera icon Akira Suwa/Staff Photgrapher
Jed Levin, archaeologist with Independence National Historical Park, speaks with Patricia and Bill Bartoldus from Patchogue, N.Y., and Tracy and Paul Limbidis from Sydney, Australia, at the excavation observation deck. AKIRA SUWA / File Photograph

Far from toppling Washington from his pedestal, the President’s House restores him and introduces a whole cast of individuals into the story of the nation’s founding – individuals who were there, but had been ignored because of race or class or gender.

“I believe in adding to history, not subtracting,” said Coard.

“You want to talk about George Washington as a god, go ahead. But also talk about the nine [enslaved] in Philadelphia, the 316 [enslaved] in Mount Vernon. In Philly we didn’t want to make George Washington disappear from history; we wanted to make the enslaved people appear in history.”