It’s hard to avoid thinking about legacy in Philadelphia.
I spent most of last week in the city, my second visit as an adult. I was there for work, to attend a professional conference for people in higher education who work on issues related to gender equity. I stayed in appropriately generic hotels in downtown Philadelphia that featured good room service, warm staff and chilly conference rooms. I learned and networked during the day and wandered the streets in the evening.
During my first visit, I visited the Liberty Bell and walked by the Christ Church burial ground and Elfreth’s Alley. The city is filled with reminders of Philadelphia’s role in early American history, nods to the men and women who fought and sacrificed to win their freedom during the Revolutionary War. I felt like I was surrounded by America’s origin myth. On my second day at the 2016 conference, I learned about about institutional betrayal and Prof. Jennifer Freyd’s betrayal trauma theory.
It was fascinating stuff, but everyone was too busy talking about the Presidential campaign. A recording of one of the candidates talking frankly about some of the awful privileges that come with power had surfaced, and everyone was either frightened about what might happen if the candidate became President or confident that this revelation would doom his candidacy. I wandered by the President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of A New Nation exhibit later that evening. It was a profoundly moving experience that I was eager to replicate on my second trip to the city.
The House is an open air park installation maintained by Independence National Historical Park that sits on the site of the Executive Mansion occupied by our first two Presidents. The exhibit sits in an open, freely accessible space. It consists of a brick foundation representing the original structure, a series of video motion screens and glass panels with stories about the lives of those who resided in the mansion with the two Presidents and the world that surrounded them, a glass enclosed section that overlooks an excavated portion of the original house, an enclosed memorial space and a granite wall etched with the names of nine people.
Austin. Paris. Hercules. Christopher Sheels. Richmond. Giles. Oney[a] Judge. Moll. Joe.
They were the nine enslaved people taken from the Washington family’s Mount Vernon estate to the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia in 1790 (along with a coterie of employees and other Washington family members). According to the material at the museum, the President owned a total of 123 slaves (at the time of his death) and his wife owned 84 (received in an inheritance). They controlled the lives of an additional 200 slaves, who were ‘held in trust’ for Mrs. Washington’s children and descendants as part of her first husband’s estate.
Austin worked in the Washington family mansion in Mount Vernon as a waiter and a rider/huntsman. The Washingtons trusted him to make long trips on his own. He died in 1794 after a fall from a horse. He was survived by five children, who were enslaved by G.W. Parke Custis (Martha’s grandson), per the terms of Mrs. Washington’s trust. Moll was a nanny for Martha’s two children and four grandchildren. She never married or had children of her own. She was present at the doorway when George Washington died, and was also enslaved by one of Martha’s grandchildren per the terms of the trust. Giles was one of George Washington’s postilions, the men who rode and drove the horses that pulled his carriage. He suffered an injury at some point in the early 1790’s and was left behind at Mount Vernon at some point. The historical record suggests that he probably died at some point before 1799.
Joe Richardson was one of the President’s other postillions. He also worked in the stables. His wife was a seamstress who was one of President Washington’s slaves. The two had seven children. Joe never gained his freedom (as it was decided by the terms of Mrs. Washington’s trust), but his children were free (as his wife was freed after the President’s death).
Paris was a teenager who worked as a stableboy. George Washington sent him back to Mount Vernon in 1791 because he had become “lazy, self-willed, and impudent“. Washington complained that Paris would “do nothing he was ordered, and everything he was forbid“. Paris died in Mount Vernon a few years later.
Christopher was the President’s personal attendants. He was selected for this position after his uncle (his predecessor in the role) was injured. Christopher also knew how to read and write and was friends with George Lafayette, the son of the famous Marquis. He was in his late teens – early twenties during his time in Philadelphia. He planned an escape in 1799 with a woman enslaved on another plantation. Washington foiled the plan. A few months later, Christopher attended to the man who denied him freedom on his deathbed.
Ona was Austin’s sister, the daughter of an enslaved person and a person bound as an indentured servant. She served as a personal servant to Martha Washington, and taught herself how to read and write. In 1796, Ona learned that she was going to be transferred to one of Mrs. Washington’s grandchildren as a wedding present.
Although she was one of the slaves who was part of the Custis estate and had no prospect of obtaining her freedom after the death of the President or First Lady, the news must have been a reminder that her privileges were not rights and could be easily revoked at any time. Her loyalty and service had no value. The grandchild, Elizabeth Parke Custis, also had a reputation for being temperamental and difficult. In the spring of that year, Ona escaped. She departed the house while the President and First Lady were eating dinner, and members of the free African American community helped her escape to Portsmouth, a coastal city in New Hampshire. Ona lived the rest of her life as a fugitive. Washington tried to reclaim her on several occasions, but those attempts were unsuccessful.
Ona shared her experience with abolitionists in the late 1840’s. The passage that I found was relatively brief, but it served as a powerful reminder that the life of an enslaved person who was forced to work in the home of a person who held them captive was not a privileged one.
Hercules was one of two cooks for the household, described by Mrs. Washington’s grandson as a cook who was “as highly accomplished in the culinary art as could be found in the United States“.
He was given license to sell food from his kitchen and keep the proceeds, and to walk around the city unencumbered. The Washingtons almost treated him like a fellow human being. Richmond was his teenaged son (one of four children). He was allowed to work in the kitchen with his father. In the fall of 1796, Washington’s term as President was coming to an end, and when he returned to Philadelphia, he left Hercules and Richmond behind in Mount Vernon. Ona’s escape in the spring of that year may have been been fresh in his mind. According a great series of articles on Hercules’ life by Craig Laban (a restaurant critic from the Philadelphia Inquirer), the great chef’s new assignment involved “digging clay for 100,000 bricks, spreading dung, grubbing bushes, and smashing stones into sand to coat the houses on the property“. Washington wrote his farm manager to tell him that these tasks would keep Hercules and the other enslaved people “out of idleness and mischief”. Richmond was caught stealing money in late 1796. The President became worried that the two were planning a joint escape and ordered them to be watched. It’s not clear how he punished Richmond for his theft, but a letter indicates that Washington wanted his farm manager to “make an example of” the young man. Washington’s efforts to monitor the movements of his former chef were unsuccessful. In February of 1797, Hercules escaped while Washington was celebrating his 65th birthday in Philadelphia. Laban describes an arduous journey. Hercules had a twelve hour head start (the overseer would have noticed his absence at dawn), but had to find his way out of an 8,000 acre plantation surrounded by rivers, creeks and marshlands, and pass through a heavily wooded area to reach a community of free African Americans in Alexandria called the Bottoms. He also had to leave his four children behind. The trip would have taken about two days in weather that was cold and rainy during the day and snowy at night. Hercules’ escape was successful. According to some reports, he settled in Europe. I’d like to imagine that he lived a happy life, that he found some way to reunite with at least some of his children, but I’m satisfied with knowing that his time as a slave was over.
If President George Washington did not circumvent state law, all nine could have lived out their lives as free men and women. Ten years prior to his arrival, Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act, a law allowing people enslaved by citizens of other states to claim their freedom after six months of residence in Pennsylvania. This law was the first of its kind in the Americas and resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of enslaved people living in Pennsylvania. By 1796, there were over 6,000 members of a community of free African Americans in Philadelphia and fewer than 100 slaves. Washington did not believe that the law applied to him (as he was only in Philadelphia for official purposes), but was concerned that “the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them (the slaves) to resist. At any rate, it might, if they conceived they had a right to it, make them insolent in a State of Slavery.” He was not only concerned about the potential loss of free labor, but the additional expense he would incur if he had to repay the Custis estate for its ‘lost property’. The Washingtons evaded this law during their time in Philadelphia by regularly rotating their captives to Mount Vernon before the deadline expired, which had the effect of ‘resetting’ the clock. In a letter to his personal secretary, he wrote that he wished to have “it accomplished under the pretext that may deceive both them and the public“.
Thomas Jefferson, who then served as the Secretary of State, faced a similar dilemma with James Hemings, a cook trained under the chef of France’s Prince Louis-Joseph de Bourbon who was also one of his slaves. He swore that he would eventually free James if he didn’t claim his freedom under the Gradual Abolition Act. Jefferson fulfilled his promise, freeing Hemings in 1796.
The memorial space is etched with the names of the tribes and regions of origin for the enslaved people taken from Africa. I was struck by the diversity represented on the wall, the wide range of communities from every corner of the massive continent. The first time I visited the space, I wept thinking about all of the people who didn’t complete the trip and those who survived to live out a terrifying life in the Americas.
I returned to the monument last week. The world is far more terrifying than it was in October of 2016, but I felt a greater sense of hope than I did at that time. I thought about the lives, struggles and accomplishments of the nine, and felt a powerful sense of pride for those who escaped, those who tried, and those who struggled to survive under inhuman conditions.
There is evidence that George Washington’s views on slavery were complicated and evolved over the course of his life. He was the only one of the “founding fathers” who freed the slaves that he owned, but only did so on the condition that he retained the benefit of their free labor for the remainder of his life. He circumvented local and federal law designed to curb the impact of a monstrous way of life, but there are some suggestions that he refrained from punishing his captives as severely as other American slaveholders. I wish that I could find some comfort in that complexity, or have some confidence that President Washington went through some kind of meaningful moral evolution. One of the most meaningful cultural experiences I’ve had over the last few years was watching a live performance of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton with the original cast (much more on this later). There were a few lines in one of the last scenes that I found particularly haunting.
Sometimes that legacy feels like one of hypocrisy, a man using superlatives to describe policies that will ruin lives. Some of us have made a habit of saying that the current state of affairs is ‘not normal’, and while I appreciate the sentiment, I wonder… Maybe I just want to find a version of our first President that bears some resemblance to the version of Washington played by Christopher Jackson in Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical. I want to hear him sing that he wants to sit under his “own vine and fig tree” without thinking about all the free labor that afforded him that life. But I can’t.
That’s when I remember that the people who lead this country don’t own it. We can also acknowledge the legacy of those who are typically left out of the story, the ones who faces aren’t on currency and aren’t the subjects of hit musicals. Ona and Hercules and Austin and Paris and Christopher and Richmond and Giles and Moll and Joe’s contributions to our collective song are no less important.