Visitors to President's House grapple with reality of slavery

Posted: February 18, 2013

As the nation's first president, George Washington led a young country that had declared "all men are created equal," yet owned 300 slaves, gave slave owners the legal right to recover their runaways, and skirted a Pennsylvania law providing for gradual abolition by sending some of his slaves to Virginia.

That dichotomy, at the heart of the President's House exhibit at Independence Mall, was on the minds of those touring the site Sunday on the eve of the federal holiday honoring all U.S. presidents.

"You can't water it down as if it didn't happen," said Lisa Hightower, 47. "It did."

Hightower, visiting from New York, spent the chilly afternoon taking pictures in the open-air exhibit. A joint project of the city and the National Park Service, President's House opened next to the Liberty Bell Center in 2010 after years of controversy over its message. After opening, it drew scrutiny for persistent equipment malfunctions.

The exhibit matches the layout and includes pieces of the foundation of the mansion at Sixth and Market Streets, where Washington lived from 1790 to 1797, when Philadelphia served as capital of the United States.

Though Washington kept most of his slaves at Mount Vernon, his estate in Virginia, he brought nine slaves to the mansion in Philadelphia. They are featured in the exhibit, which tells the story of slavery's presence in Washington's presidency.

To some, that history was a surprise. "Enlightening," said a man walking through the exhibit, where videos of actors depicting slaves appeared on screens alongside other displays about the house.

Bucks County resident Kathy Kindness said that understanding Washington's slaveholding required context.

"When you think about history, it's almost like a foreign country," she said. "People's thoughts were different. It's easy to look back and make judgments." Washington was a complicated man, she added.

Gerald Sweeney, of West Orange, N.J., said Washington was shaped by the culture of the time, like other Founding Fathers who held slaves.

"I think they all knew it was against principle," he said. In his will, Washington ordered that his slaves be freed upon his wife's death.

Those familiar with Washington's relationship to slavery said their prior knowledge didn't make them comfortable with it. "It's still hard to see," said Jayme Bullard, 27, of Washington, who had been examining a map of slave trade routes.

But she and others said they appreciated the decision to showcase hard-to-stomach history.

"It makes it more human," Vianela Campbell, of Maplewood, N.J., said of the accounts of slave experiences.

Not shying away from less admirable elements of history shows that "we're a sophisticated nation," she said. "We can see our past, accept it, and move forward."

Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or

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