Editorial | President's House

Honoring other founders

Even though he was president of the new United States, George Washington had to be careful not to quarter his nine slaves for more than a few months at a time in the capital city of Philadelphia.

That's because Pennsylvania law provided that any slave who established residency of six months could apply for freedom from an out-of-state slave owner.

Didn't know that? Not surprising, since most visitors to Independence National Historical Park don't learn much about the father of our country as a slave owner.

For decades, only a plaque marked the spot at Sixth and Market Streets where the Robert Morris house once stood - and where the nation's first president kept slaves. A men's room stood on the site for years.

Construction of the Liberty Bell Center a few years ago compounded the oversight and the perceived slight: Its entrance nearly trampled the very spot where Washington's slaves were housed.

Fortunately, that's all about to change - in a big way. Following the selection of a design this week by the city and the National Park Service, ground will be broken this summer on a fitting memorial to the slaves and what's known as the President's House. (Anti-slavery President John Adams later lived in Morris' house.)

Chosen from among five plans (http://go.philly.com/houseplans), the $5.2 million memorial, designed by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners of Philadelphia, promises to engage and challenge visitors.

With its distinctive outlines of the house, including windows, a partial staircase and other architectural features, the memorial should be an attention-grabber. The centerpiece, though, should be the slave quarters - depicted somewhat eerily as a transparent glass cube. The slaves' daily lives in the house, as well as those of the Washington family, will be depicted in audio and video recordings around the memorial.

Telling this story in such detail is going to be edgy stuff, and appropriately so. As Rutgers University-Camden professor Sharon Ann Holt noted in an Inquirer commentary last year, "George and Martha Washington, while consciously forging the new role of executive in a free republic, worked just as hard to deny the blessings of liberty to the slaves in their household."

It's a story downplayed for too long. Local historians and history buffs - notably the grassroots community group, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition - deserve enormous credit for raising awareness on this point.

National Park Service officials were slow to see the importance of creating a memorial. By contrast, the Street administration jump-started what was a moribund project - with Mayor Street's early pledge that the city would contribute $1.5 million toward construction. Federal funding eventually followed. Then the city took the reins on soliciting designs, which culminated in the Kelly/Maiello announcement Tuesday.

After nearly five years, an important and little-known - even buried - piece of America's past is being brought to light.