"I never knew George Washington had slaves!"

Speaking of ridiculous things, I'm trying to figure out whether it's just the Philadelphia Inquirer which is being ridiculous, or whether the city government, the federal government, or local activists are more to blame.

Anyway, for two days now, the Inquirer has been promoting Fourth of July slavery celebrations, and the absurd idea that George Washington's ownership of slaves has been covered up by historians.

Yesterday, the Inquirer featured an emotional article (it would be tough to call it a "report," and I don't think it was intended as an editorial) by Stephan Salisbury. Salisbury goes by the title of "INQUIRER CULTURE WRITER" and I'm not quite sure what that means, or how many there are, because another writer, one Peter Dobrin, also seems to hold that title. At least he did last week, except he's the Inky's music critic. You know, ballet, music, the arts? These are things we like to call culture.

I guess it's also considered "culture" to scold George Washington for his crimes and hold mock "funerals" for long dead slaves, but Salisbury's emotional piece -- "Washington's slaves finally get full Phila. burial" -- does just that.

Nine Philadelphia slaves received their proper funeral Tuesday, about 200 years after their deaths.

Nine Africans, held in bondage by President George Washington when Philadelphia was the capital of the nation and slaves toiled all over town, were eulogized by nine children brought together to honor and remember them.

In a demonstration across the street from the site where Washington conducted his presidency in the 1790s, hundreds witnessed what they considered a celebration of freedom, long overdue.

At 6 p.m., after the final eulogy was read, the children simultaneously lifted the tops of nine cardboard caskets laid out on the green grass, and a score of black helium balloons rose into the hazy blue sky over Independence Mall and drifted fast in the wind, heading north.

"The nine are free, and so are we!" chanted the crowd. "The nine are free, and so are we!"

While I see three factual errors, I don't know whose job it should be to correct them; mine or the Inquirer's.

Or is this exercise an absurd and surreal waste of time? Should I just accept the fact that this story is grounded in emotion and not reality, and understand that the Inquirer feels obligated to run it? I really don't know. Are bloggers even supposed to correct errors in obviously emotional pieces? Are there rules? Does it matter that according to historical records, Washington's slaves of African descent who were not born in Africa cannot properly be called "Africans"? Or does that interfere with the cultural "narrative" the Inquirer's readers are expected to swallow in an obedient state of quasi-religious shame?

What about the plain logical fact that a "burial" simply cannot be held for people who are long dead? Does that matter?

And does it matter that it is impossible to celebrate the "freedom" of dead slaves? While two of the slaves (Hercules and Oney Judge) escaped, and Washington eventually freed his slaves on his death, the fact is that all of these people are long dead, and they either died in slavery or in freedom. There is no way to free them now, or celebrate their freedom now, much less link their "freedom" to that of nine unrelated individuals -- none of whom can assert any connection to Washington's slaves other than the fact that they belong to the same race.

Or does logic have no place in analyzing fantasy? Look, I have no problem with fantasy. Some of my best friends are really into fantasy, but I'd find it a little disturbing if their fantasies were reported as news.

The fantasy being promulgated is that Washington's ownership of slaves -- something I and everyone I know was taught as a child -- is part of a historical coverup which has now been unearthed, and that this "new" historical meme now rivals the founding of the country:

Each year an activist group - the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition - has demonstrated there, demanding that the federal government and the National Park Service properly recognize and commemorate Washington's slaves, who were quartered at the house site, now steps away from the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.

This year was different, however, and not just because of the children. The city and Park Service have excavated the site - the house was demolished in 1832 - and uncovered dramatic evidence not only of white presidential power but also of enslaved African powerlessness.

The foundation of the house and its great bow window - installed by Washington and said to auger the oval rooms in the White House - and the foundation of the slave's world of kitchen and subterranean passageway are now exposed in stark proximity.

The excavation, done in advance of a planned memorial to the house and its residents, has proved a powerful attraction to visitors and has inspired unusual dialogs about power and race in U.S. history.

Now city and Park Service officials are pondering how to incorporate the archeological findings into final plans for the site.

Until recently, not even the names of the slaves were known to the most dedicated historians. Now, on a warm summer day, children could read the names and speak a few words about each slave: Austin, Christopher, Giles, Hercules, Joe, Moll, Oney Judge, Paris and Richmond.

Until recently? Names and accounts of the slaves appeared in Stephen Decatur's Private Affairs of George Washington -- a book printed in 1933. I have not conducted historical research so I'll be generous here and assume that before 1933 the names of the slaves were unknown "even to dedicated historians."

But by what possible standard can 1933 be considered "recently"?

Historical coverup? If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that the Inquirer is running its own historical coverup.

And the bottom line is that Philadelphia children "never knew":

Christopher Waters, 10, who attends Thomas G. Morton Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia, eulogized Austin, who labored in a variety of capacities for Washington and his wife, Martha. Austin was Oney Judge's half-brother.

"I felt pretty good about doing it," Christopher said. "But I never knew George Washington had slaves!"

The 200 who gathered for the demonstration included several Park Service employees.

Your tax dollars at work play.

I might have been willing to overlook yesterday's morbid fantasy-horror story if the Inquirer hadn't served up more today, in a story titled "A somber memorial at a site of slavery":

Outside Independence Hall yesterday, flags were waving and the crowd was snazzy in red, white and blue.

But the nation's 231st birthday took on a somber note as speakers invoked a painful chapter in the nation's history.

Standing just a half-block from an archaeological dig that unearthed wrenching evidence of George Washington's slaves, Cheryl Janifer LaRoche called for "a contemplative Fourth of July - a meditation on freedom, liberty, justice and democracy."

Indeed, LaRoche, the historical archaeologist at the dig, refused to use the word celebrate in speaking of the holiday. Instead, she spoke of marking the day.

"Tonight," LaRoche said, "let every burst of fireworks that illuminates the night sky penetrate the dark recesses of injustice."

While historians knew that Washington owned slaves in Philadelphia, only in the last few years has physical evidence been found, including remnants of an underground passage that his nine slaves used to move about.

Physical evidence? In the form of a passage connecting two buildings? Is there some reason the Inquirer can't see fit to point out that not only are the slave quarters at Mt Vernon never been kept secret, but they've been open to public visitors since 1962? This "underground passage" means absolutely nothing, and (as I've discussed before) sheds no new historical light on a subject which has never been debated by any serious historian -- or for that matter, any American with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history.

Of course, the true goal here might not involve exposing a historical coverup, but merely alleging one in order to draw more tourists to Philadelphia.

In that regard, it might be more patriotic of me to go along with the P.T. Barnum approach. (You know.... "Step right up and see George Washington's bloody whipping post!")

And folks, if you enjoy Philadelphia's historical slavery coverup as much as I do, isn't it about time someone told Mayor Bloomberg to tear down the Brooklyn Bridge?

posted by Eric on 07.05.07 at 10:26 AM


But by what possible standard can 1933 be considered "recently"?

Geologic. However, it is instructive to compare this notion of "recent" with the same people's historically ignorant impatience in other matters.

Peregrine John   ·  July 5, 2007 11:03 AM

My understanding was that Washington's slaves had originally been the property of the rich widow he married. Kind of like General U.S. Grant - all his slaves were listed in his wife's name.

triticale   ·  July 5, 2007 3:05 PM

Its just the usual rank ingnorance masquerading as reportage at the Inquirer. Nothing particularly special, really.

Eric Blair   ·  July 5, 2007 4:15 PM

reconciles opportune broccoli suiting:summonses?seasoners invariantly

Anonymous   ·  July 6, 2007 2:05 PM


Washington originally intended to manumit those slaves while he was still alive. Martha, his wife, pointed out that said slaves were legally her property, and that while she would ordinarily support him, she was afraid her sons by her earlier marriage would oppose it. What with the slaves being their inheritance and all.

So George went and got ownership legally transferred over to him. But having promised he would not free them while he lived, decided to have the manumission written into his will.

So it was, and it was included in the reading of the will. Immediately Martha and her sons objected to that provision on the grounds that someone snuck it in when George wasn't looking. Their argument being that George wasn't that kind of person. The judge handling the estate agreed, and ordered that provision stricken. He was also an old friend of Martha and her family. Conflict of interest anybody? This means that Washington's slaves were not freed upon his death, but remained in slavery for some generations to come.

Here's another thing to consider regarding Martha Washington's relationship with George Washington, the night George died.

George came home from visiting a neighbor one night with a bad cold --- possibly a flu. Martha called the doctors in to treat the former President. They bled him. They bled him till he died. Thing is, you didn't bleed people for a cold. For tuberculosis or small pox maybe, but not a cold. And they bled him to death. We're either talking about some incredibly stupid people, or somebody wanted Washington to be bled to death. And who would have reason to see him out of the way?

Alan Kellogg   ·  July 6, 2007 4:50 PM

Nearly everything in Alan Kellogg's "Background" is fictional. Accurate information can be found at http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/slaves/numbers.htm

Martha's only son to survive to adulthood, Jacky, died in 1781.

Washington owned about 36 slaves when he married in 1759. Widow Martha Custis had the lifetime use of about 85 "dower" slaves (and their increase) owned by the estate of her first husband, Daniel Custis. With his wife's wealth, Washington bought dozens of additional slaves and hundreds of acres surrounding Mount Vernon. According to the July 1799 Mount Vernon slave census, he owned 124 slaves (this was four months before his death). Through his will, he ordered them freed upon Martha's death (his slaves had intermarried with the dowers and about a dozen slave families would be torn apart by the manumission of only one spouse/parent). The dowers numbered 153 in July 1799. Martha died in May 1802. She freed the one slave that she owned outright, but all the dowers reverted to the Custis Estate, and were inherited by her grandchildren.

In the late 1790s, Washington and his friend, Dr. David Stuart, tried to craft a scheme by which the farms surrounding Mount Vernon would be leased, with the dowers rented out as indentured servants and their earnings compensating the Custis Estate for their eventual freedom. The husbands of Martha's two oldest granddaughters seem to have killed this idea.

Tobias Lear, Washington's private secretary, was at his side through his brief, ultimately fatal, illness. Lear's famous eyewitness account is believed to be accurate: http://seacoastnh.com/Famous_People/Tobias_Lear/Death_of_George_Washington/

Anonymous   ·  July 31, 2007 10:07 PM

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