'Walk with the ancestors'

An archaeologist speaks of a life-transforming experience at the President's House dig

The following is the text of a speech presented this morning in front of Independence Hall. It was given by Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, historical archaeologist and cultural heritage specialist for the URS Group team conducting the Presidents' House archaeological dig.


I can't think of a more appropriate way to mark the nation's 231st birthday than by talking to you about the many unanticipated gifts that have emerged from the President's House site that remind us that history is written more simply and heroically than life was actually lived.

Archaeology allows us to go deeper. It exposes the minutia, the mundane, the magnificent, the distressing and appalling without design or prejudice. It spreads before us the unearthed evidence of human lives lived in every facet of their glory and their secrets. It reveals a picture that is often conflicted and challenges us to look more deeply.

At this extraordinary site we have uncovered the foundation of the bow window, the ceremonial space chosen by our first president to express his power as chief executive. And we have uncovered the foundation of the kitchen where enslaved Africans toiled, the space where Washington exploited his power as slaveholder.

Washington had firsthand knowledge of the African captives' quest for freedom. Dozens had escaped from Mount Vernon, Va., during the American Revolution. Of the nine captive Africans Washington brought with him from Mount  Vernon to the President's House in Philadelphia, four either planned or attempted escaped at some point during or after their captivity in Philadelphia.

Two of Washington's enslaved workers, Oney Judge and Hercules, succeeded in escaping form this site, the nation's first executive mansion. They seized the freedom the Declaration of Independence promised but the nation would not deliver. Each defined liberty and freedom for themselves in the face of gross injustices and, to quote Frederick Douglass, in the face of "the sacrilegious irony" of being enslaved by the leader of the new democratic republic and his wife.

Frederick Douglass did not celebrate the Fourth of July. As an escapee from slavery and a black man in America in 1852, he thought it a mockery to expect him to do so. Sixty years after George Washington signed the first Fugitive Slave Act and two years after the last and infamous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was written into the Constitution, Douglass wrote one of his most important speeches, "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro."

In it, Douglass thundered, "Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.  ... The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me." As he critiqued the conduct of the nation, he condemned its hypocrisy and its barbarity around American slavery in the face of its "shouts of liberty and equality."

At the President's House site, that "immeasurable distance" between freedom and slavery was lived out under one roof. At this site, my colleagues, visitors and I bear witness to evidence of those complexities and inequities. Over time, history often gets distilled down to what makes us feel good about ourselves as a nation. Every day this site, instead, challenges us to reconsider what we've been taught in history class and why, think and to feel more deeply.

Douglass went on to say, "I do not despair of this country . ... I, therefore leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains and the genius of the American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of ...  [our] age."

Furthermore, in referring to the injustices of slavery, Douglass demanded that "the feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed."

What Douglass demanded of the nation, I ask of the visitors who come to the President's House archaeological site today as we examine freedom, slavery and black history at the site.

Tonight, let every burst of fireworks that penetrates the night sky illuminate the dark recesses of injustice. I call for a contemplative Fourth of July, a meditation on freedom, liberty, justice and democracy and I ask: What would Frederick Douglass have to say to us today?

And lastly, my work on this site has been personally gratifying and life transforming. I had been thinking about and researching Oney Judge for at least two years before I began work here. To walk the ground where she may have stood is for me a blessing of the rarest kind.

Archaeology allows me to experience black history, to walk with the ancestors. This Fourth of July, I have been profoundly moved by their stories of hope and freedom, and on behalf of Doug Mooney and the URS archaeology team, I invite you to the President's House site at Sixth and Market Streets so that you may be touched by these brave stories, as well.