Washington's Legacy of Enslavement
& the 1st White House
The remains of Colonial-era buildings, including the house that George
Washington lived in
when he was president, are exposed at an archaeological dig in front of the
Liberty Bell Center,
top right, in Philadelphia. Archaeologists have discovered a hidden passageway
that was used by
Matt Rourke, Photographer, Associated Press
MSNBC - Associated Press
Slave passage found under Washingtonâ€™s home
Hidden passageway was used by George Washington's nine slaves
Rubina Madan June 7,
PA) – Archaeologists unearthing
the remains of George Waashington's presidential home have discovered a hidden
passageway used by his nine slaves, raising questions about whether the ruins
should be incorporated into a new exhibit at the site.
The underground passageway is just steps from the Liberty Bell and Independence
Hall. It was designed so Washington's
guests would not see slaves as they slipped in and out of the main house.
"As you enter the heaven of liberty, you literally have to cross the hell
of slavery," said Michael Coard, a Philadelphia
attorney who leads a group that worked to have slavery recognized at the site.
"That's the contrast, that's the contradiction, that's the hypocrisy. But
that's also the truth."
Washington lived and conducted presidential
business at the house in the 1790s, when Philadelphia
was the nation's capital.
Quandary for exhibit planners
The findings have created a quandary for National Park Service and city
officials planning an exhibit at the house. They are now trying to decide
whether to incorporate the remains into the exhibit or go forward with plans to
fill in the ruins and build an abstract display about life in the house.
Making that decision will push back the building of the exhibit, which had been
slated to open in 2009. But the oversight committee won't rush into
construction, said Joyce Wilkerson, the mayor's chief of staff.
"We never thought we'd be faced with this kind of decision," she
said. "We would've been happy to have found a pipe! And so we don't want
to proceed blindly or say, 'This isn't in the plan.'"
Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., was so moved when he visited the site last week that he
declared: "We need to rethink what we're doing here."
"It's astounding, absolutely astounding," Brady said. "I'm going
to fight to keep it open, I'll tell you that much."
More discoveries than expected
Aside from the passageway, archaeologists have uncovered remnants of a bow
window, an architectural precursor to the White House's Oval Office, and a
large basement that was never noted in historic records.
"We actually found a lot more of the remains of the President's House than
anyone expected. Myself included," said Jed Levin, an archaeologist with
the National Park Service.
Thousands of visitors have been drawn to the ruins, standing on a small wooden
platform to gaze down at the house's brick and stone foundation. The public
response spurred officials to continue the excavation until at least July 4; it
began in March and had been scheduled to end last month.
Archaeologists have served as guides, answering visitors' questions. Cheryl
LaRoche, a cultural heritage specialist, said she enjoys educating people about
how even a prominent statesman like Washington
could own slaves.
"We've been striving to present a balanced view of history that stands
apart from what's been taught in history books," LaRoche said.
Most of Washington's slaves lived at his Mount Vernon
estate in Virginia.
died in 1799, he had more than 300 slaves. In his will, he arranged for them to
be freed after the death of his wife.
Change of plans?
Before the ruins were unearthed, officials had planned an exhibit without
archaeological findings. The planned design included a framework of the house,
LED screens and other audiovisual elements explaining its history, including
stories of Washington's
The remains would crumble if left unprotected. If the design included
elevators, ramps or stairs to move visitors down into the newly dug ruins,
costs would increase significantly.
Coard said he is confident the oversight committee will find the best way to
tell the slaves' stories.
"Everybody's on board in terms of seriously considering incorporating the
architectural dig into the design," Coard said. "The question now is:
Is it doable? Nobody is saying, 'No, it shouldn't be done.'"
David Orr, an anthropology professor at Temple University,
has visited the site at least four times. He posted a note on the President's
House Web site urging officials to keep the ruins on display.
"It's just fantastic," Orr said. "I can't tell you enough how
exciting it is. For years and years and years I've been trying to promote that
kind of public archeology."