Digging deeper into slavery

Posted: April 11, 2007

By John Haigis

The significance of the archeological dig going on near the site of the President's House at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia goes well beyond artifacts and place. It can be considered a major milestone in coming to grips with the inconvenient and uncomfortable truths of slavery. It can also tell the story of the beginnings of the regional resistance to slavery, which later became known as the Underground Railroad.

That the dig is taking place in the shadow of the Liberty Bell is either ironic or wonderfully appropriate, depending of your perspective. The bell's inscription from Leviticus 25:10 speaks of venerating the 50th year as a year of jubilee. The bell commemorates the 50th anniversary of William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges, a forerunner to our Constitution.

The verse, selected by Quaker Isaac Norris, speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, says "ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family." Abolitionists felt it meant that all slaves and prisoners should be freed every 50 years.

Congratulations to the National Park Service, the Avenge the Ancestors Coalition, historian Edward Lawler Jr., and many others for their determined perseverance in telling this important story. Evidence being unearthed may tell us more about ourselves, and perhaps even something about the meaning of freedom.

The story revolves around George Washington's household and two of his slaves, Oney Judge and Hercules. Despite having what could be seen as a privileged life for slaves - Judge had her own room and had visited the circus, and Hercules was allowed to sell leftover food and use the proceeds to buy clothes and other items - the two nevertheless risked everything to be free.

The record seems clear that Judge found friends in Philadelphia's free black community, who hid her and then helped her board a ship for Portsmouth, N.H., where she lived the rest of her life as a fugitive. She died in 1848.

With Hercules, Washington's cook, reputed to be the best chef in the colonies, the record is less clear. Following Washington's presidency, Hercules escaped - somewhere between Philadelphia and Chester - on the final trip back to Mount Vernon, says Lawler. He likely fled along the main road to the South. "The trail vanishes somewhere in the environs of Darby," wrote historian Tom Smith.

We may never know for certain but it is possible that Hercules, who was never recaptured, had help from the fledgling Underground Railroad.

Philadelphia, and particularly Darby, had long been hotbeds of antislavery activity. The first protest against slavery in the New World occurred in 1688 in Germantown, which has a long, illustrious Quaker and Mennonite history of helping escaped slaves. Darby settler John Blunston, who helped mediate between settlers and Penn in the signing of the Charter of Privileges, commemorated by the Liberty Bell, joined in a protest against Quaker involvement "in the importing, buying or selling of negro slaves" as early as 1715.

Oral tradition and family stories of helping escaping slaves abound throughout the region. Washington himself, ambivalent on the topic of slavery, wrote to Robert Morris, a former delegate to the Continental Congress, in 1786 and complained about a society of Quakers in the city who had formed to liberate slaves. Washington expressed concern that slave-owning travelers would not come to Philadelphia if they felt their property would be in jeopardy from the "snares of individuals, or of private societies."

There is a great challenge in uncovering the historical record of the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 made it a federal crime to assist an escaping slave and punished those who did so with severe fines. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was even more punitive, and made virtually certain that all attempts to help slaves were done in secret. Family traditions combine with circumstance and supposition to fill in the gaps.

"Historical truth" is always subject to revision, based on new information and understandings in a splendid, dynamic process. The dig at the President's House may help lead to such further understanding and renewed appreciation of the wider region's historic legacy.

John Haigis lives and writes in Darby Borough. He serves on the Darby Borough Historical Commission and is Web master of www.darbyhistory.com.

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