President's House refocuses attention on slavery

Thu Dec 16, 2010 3:09pm EST
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By Jon Hurdle

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - A new memorial to early American slaves has refocused public attention on a dark chapter in American history and prompted a reassessment of its first president, George Washington.

The President's House, a partial reconstruction of the residence of Washington and his successor, John Adams, from 1790 to 1800, opened this week after a three-year excavation and restoration costing $11.2 million.

It commemorates the lives of nine African-descended slaves who had been kept there by Washington and highlights the stark contrast between their captivity and the beginnings of American democracy that emphasized individual liberty.

The memorial also aims to boost understanding of the horrors of slavery and draw attention to continuing racial divisions in America, said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

"We are a nation that lives with the as-yet unresolved issue of race," Nutter, who is black, told a largely African American audience at an opening ceremony.

He added that Washington operated a "devious scheme" to deny freedom to his slaves despite a Pennsylvania law that could have provided it.

"He did not choose to grant freedom to the people he held as slaves," Nutter said.

Michael Coard, a Philadelphia attorney who had pressed for the site to emphasize slavery rather than the early years of the U.S. presidency, said the site shows that early America was built on the backs of slaves.   Continued...