Tour honors slaves of George Washington
'Trail of Blood & Tears'
By Betsey Piette
Two prominent buildings now stand as opposing
pillars of Independence Park in Philadelphia's historic
At one end, at 6th and Arch streets, is the newly opened
National Constitution Center, built by a construction firm that
excluded Black workers. The target of a national protest on
July 4, it houses a museum dedicated to the history of the U.S.
Constitution. This document, when penned in 1787, protected
only the rights of white male property owners.
At the park's southern end sits Independence Hall,
constructed by the labor of enslaved Africans. They were
counted as only three-fifths of a "free inhabitant" by the
Constitution's authors, who also allowed the importation of
slaves to continue until 1808 and let the national government
collect a tax on imported slaves. The first U.S. census in 1790
reported 757,000 African Americans--about 694,000 of them
enslaved--out of a total population of nearly 4 million.
Trail of blood and tears:
a day of remembrance
The park service offers tours around Independence Park.
Guides offer a wealth of information designed to glorify the
men who declared independence from British colonialism, as well
as Philadelphia's role as the country's first capital, where
the Constitution was written and where the first U.S.
president, George Washington, resided.
The location of the president's house--or the Philadelphia
White House, as it was sometimes called--became a subject of
controversy in 2002 when the public learned that Washington had
unlawfully housed eight or more enslaved Africans on the
property. This came out in connection with construction of the
Liberty Bell Center and the National Constitution Center.
The holding of slaves on a permanent basis was illegal in
Pennsylvania, even at that time. To get around this, Washington
would periodically return the eight enslaved men and women to
his plantation in Virginia so they could not be considered
Attempts to bury this history along with the artifacts
uncovered during these construction projects have resulted in
numerous protests by the African American community here. Last
year the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition--ATAC--organized
hundreds of protesters to demand that Independence National
Historical Park totally fund a commemorative project honoring
the eight enslaved Africans and all Africans who contributed
mightily to building the United States.
Hundreds came out again on July 3 of this year to continue
this struggle for reparations. They were seeking both input for
such a project from the African American community and a
portion of the $19-million annual budget for the maintenance of
the $137-million National Constitution Center.
On July 2, Generations Unlimited, an African American
community organization, had led a walking tour dedicated to the
memory of those enslaved ancestors, under the banner, "No more
lies." Over 400 people participated in this tour--a memorable
and moving experience rich in history that is seldom, if ever,
presented in U.S. schools.
The Trail of Blood and Tears Tour began at 2 Front St., site
of the London Coffeehouse, built in 1702. Prospective buyers
used to come there to examine and purchase enslaved Africans
who had recently arrived on slave ships docked at a wharf on
the Delaware River. One such ship, the Mytrilla, owned by a
consortium of slave-trading merchants, carried the Liberty Bell
to America. Ironically, the bell would later become the symbol
of the anti-slavery abolitionist movement.
The tour continued past the site of the first White House,
between 6th and 7th on Walnut and Locust streets. One of the
five city squares designed by William Penn, it was originally
called the Southeast Square, but later named Washington Square
to honor the first president. Tradition holds that African
Americans called it "Congo Square," as enslaved Africans were
brought to this square once a month before they were sold to
buyers from Philadelphia and elsewhere.
The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,
founded in 1787 by Rev. Richard Allen on the oldest parcel of
land continuously owned by African Americans in the U.S., was
another stop on the tour. The site was a focal point for the
struggle for freedom among African Americans. A few blocks
away, the tour ended at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, where an
unmarked grave contains the remains of "Black Sam"--Samuel
Fraunces, a freeman and soldier in the Revolutionary War,
steward of Washington's house, and founder of famous taverns in
both Philadelphia and New York, who died in 1795.
Also buried in the cemetery are eight Seneca, Mohawk,
Iroquois and Delaware chiefs, killed in 1794 when Washington
unleashed General Anthony Wayne to wipe out their tribes just a
year after signing a peace pact with them.
In 1841, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a
speech entitled "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?" in
which he chastised those glorifying the U.S. holiday: "Your
high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance
between us. The blessings in which you, this day rejoice, are
not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice,
liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers
is shared by you, not by me ... you may rejoice, I must
Over 200 years of U.S. history have failed to erase this
Reprinted from the July 17, 2003, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyright under a Creative
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