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Archaeological dig exposes racist U.S. history

Published May 31, 2007 10:09 PM

Hidden below the modern skyscrapers lay the ruins of Philadelphia’s history—the foundation of a city, and a nation, built and maintained by the labor of enslaved Africans.

George Washington used a loophole
to keep Africans enslaved.
WW photos: Joe Piette

An excavation near the cracked Liberty Bell is laying bare the history of the first “White House,” where George Washington resided in the 1790s and kept nine enslaved Africans: Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Giles, Paris, Richmond, Christopher Sheels and Joe. It is also providing strong evidence to support the movement for reparations.

The excavation was planned to clear the site in order to lay the foundations for a memorial pavilion to the presidential house and its occupants, including the enslaved Africans. Intended to be completed in time for Philadelphia’s upcoming annual July 4 extravaganza, reaction to the dig may result in a change of plans as many people echo comments of an African-American visitor who murmured, “They should leave this. The truth is finally there to see.”

The first weekend the archaeological dig opened in mid-May, it drew over 1,000 visitors, stunning Park Service officials. A steady stream of visitors gathered on a small elevated viewing platform for the opportunity to see the building outlines and hear archaeologists explain what they were seeing. The tone was almost solemn, the discussions serious about just what role slavery played in the founding of the U.S.

The floor of the kitchen where Washington’s enslaved African chef Hercules toiled is visible. The dig has uncovered new evidence that the kitchen had a cellar and that an underground passageway connected it to the main house.

The outline of a curving neoclassical window that would inspire the current White House Blue Room and Oval Office lies close to the viewing platform. The “important” visitors Washington received in front of this window, however, could not look out onto the quarters of the enslaved Africans. Archaeologists have uncovered the foundation of a wall they believe was built to hide the slaves from public view. Washington was violating a Pennsylvania law that entitled enslaved Africans to freedom after a six-month residency.

One of Philadelphia’s premier tourist attractions, Independence Hall, is visible behind the dig. Other enslaved Africans, who were never compensated for their labor, built Independence Hall.

That Washington and other early U.S. presidents kept slaves in Virginia has never been denied. But when it was discovered about 30 years ago that he also kept enslaved Africans in Philadelphia, the National Park Service buried the discovery. To keep slaves in a free state, Washington exploited a loophole, by periodically swapping his Philadelphia slaves with some of the 316 he kept in Virginia. When some managed to escape, Washington relentlessly hunted them down.

Historical archaeologist Cheryl Janifer LaRoche commented that the dig is offering an opportunity to touch a past that’s been buried and walled away. LaRoche explained the role played by influential financier Robert Morris Jr., who moved from his mansion so it could be used as Washington’s residence. Morris, a key delegate to the 1775 Constitutional Convention, was a major slave merchant for 40 years as a partner in the Philadelphia mercantile shipping firm Willing & Morris.

LaRoche, like many others, does not want to see this site covered over when the Liberty Bell memorial is constructed. Michael Coard agreed with LaRouche. “It would be a crime and a sin to bury this,” stated Coard, a member of the memorial oversight committee and founder of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC).

Coard was recently honored by the Philadelphia City Council for his work that compelled Independence National Historical Park to acknowledge the enslaved Africans who lived and worked at this site. Coard is an activist lawyer who also teaches a course on hip-hop culture at Temple University. He had launched a letter-writing campaign and petition drive that evolved into ATAC, which organized a 500-person demonstration on July 3, 2002, to demand that the Park Service acknowledge Washington’s Philadelphia slaves.

Understanding past U.S. history is more critical than ever today, as the crisis of capitalism is creating a new era of super-exploitation of labor around the world. Billions of workers around the world receive less than $1 per day. Millions at home are forced into a twenty-first century variety of slavery behind prison walls. The fight for reparations necessitates digging up this rotten system to the roots and burying it once and for all.