Uncovering a slave history

At groundbreaking for memorial, a chance to be close to the past.

Posted: March 22, 2007

It was nothing more than a handful of earth, freshly turned and wet from the spring thaw.

And it didn't matter that it was probably topsoil trucked to Independence Mall four years ago, and that the soil around whatever is left of the first President's House was really 10 to 15 feet below her feet.

To Wanda Fatima Sidahmed, it was sacred ground.

"This means a lot to me; this is my family," said Sidahmed, 58, a retired insurance broker from East Oak Lane.

Sidahmed was one of dozens of people - all African Americans - who stopped yesterday to take a handful of earth from the hole dug during the groundbreaking for the memorial to the first presidential residence - and nine slaves who lived there serving the first president.

Sidahmed said that her family has been in Philadelphia's Germantown for four generations but that her ancestors came here from Virginia, as did the nine slaves George Washington brought from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia, the nation's capital from 1790 to 1800.

"We're digging for the truth about the start of this country and the great tragedy of slavery, which affects everything we do in this country today," Mayor Street told about 150 people gathered at the corner of Sixth and Market Streets on Independence Mall for the ceremony with National Park Service officials.

"We don't know what we're going to find," Street said. "But we certainly know we have an obligation to look."

Street then climbed into the cab of a green track hoe and, under the guiding hand of operator Jeffrey Stamps, lowered the toothed bucket and took a foot-deep chunk out of the sod.

For the next three to six weeks, archaeologists will systematically excavate the site at Sixth and Market and document and preserve any items discovered from the era when Washington and second president John Adams lived in the house. Construction of the memorial will then begin, with dedication expected early next year.

For Street and Michael Coard, a Philadelphia lawyer and organizer of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, the ceremony vindicated their campaign to persuade the park service to include Washington's slaves in its commemoration of the President's House.

Coard and Street compared it to the type of grass-roots activism that helped end slavery.

The controversy erupted in 2002 after The Inquirer reported that the entrance to the proposed Liberty Bell Center - then unbuilt - would take visitors over the site of the outbuildings where Washington's slaves lived.

Washington is believed to have brought nine slaves to Philadelphia in 1790: Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels and Joe.

Two - Hercules, Washington's fabled chef, and Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal maid - later escaped to freedom in Philadelphia.

Coard and others began lobbying for a memorial to the slaves after learning that the park service was not planning one for the Liberty Bell Center.

Ultimately, the campaign led Street to commit $1.5 million for the memorial. U.S. Reps. Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, both Philadelphia Democrats, got an additional $3.6 million in federal money.

If the controversy initially led to some tense moments between the park service and the African American community, none was evident yesterday.

Dennis Reidenbach, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, spoke of the importance of illustrating the paradox of slaves' being present at the birth of a country based on individual freedom.

Reidenbach said the site of the President's House - rented to Washington by Philadelphia financier Robert Morris - has never been archaeologically excavated. The original house was razed in the 1830s and the ground was repeatedly disturbed by construction work during the 19th century.

Reidenbach said the park service was collaborating with the Philadelphia School District on a program to show how archaeology can reveal past lives.

Present at yesterday's ceremony were history students from three city schools - the new Constitution High School, Parkway Center City High School, and High School of the Future - who will get the chance to make on-site visits to the dig and help research and tell the story behind discovered artifacts.

Jed Levin, a National Park Service archaeologist working on the project, said workers would have to go down about 10 feet before they reach the basement level of the President's House and begin the detailed archaeological excavating.

"We may wind up going down 15 to 25 feet below that," Levin said.

Although the house is long gone, Levin said he hoped to find the footings or foundations of the main building. Levin said remains of the stables and outbuildings where the slaves lived were unlikely to have survived because such buildings usually had shallow footings.

What researchers are almost certain to find, he said, are the brick-lined privies - the toilets and waste pits of the 18th century - and some wells. These pits are usually treasure troves of disposed glass and flatware, crockery, and other items of everyday life.

Stephen Sitarski, chief of interpretive visitor services at Independence Park, noted that the archaeological digs done at the Constitution Center and the park's visitor center, across Market Street from the President's House site, yielded one million artifacts.

Those artifacts are still being restored by workers as part of a public archaeology lab program run by the park service's Independence Living History Center at 143 S. Third Street.

The President's House Dig

Officials at Independence National Historical Park are providing ways for the public to view the ongoing archaeological research at the site of the President's House at Sixth and Market Streets.

The covered stage erected for yesterday's groundbreaking ceremony will remain in place during the dig, providing

a view down into the dig during daylight hours.

The park is also installing a Web camera that will allow

people with Internet access to view regularly updated

images from the site.

For more information, visit .

The City of Philadelphia has also created its own Web page devoted to the President's House project: .

Contact staff writer Joseph Slobodzian at 215-854-2985

or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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