Thus Spake Zuska

Why would you celebrate Black Independence Day on July 3rd? It took the work of slaves to build America; the slaves came before the nation, so Black Independence Day would logically precede the traditional Independence Day, July 4th.

On July 3rd, I joined about 200 others in downtown Philadelphia, at 6th and Market Streets, to celebrate Black Independence Day and to honor in particular the 9 slaves transported to Philadelphia by George Washington (of the 316 slaves at his Mt. Vernon Plantation), and in general, all slaves whose labor helped build this nation. (See here for background information on the event.) The event was sponsored by ATAC, Avenging the Ancestors. ATAC has lobbied for years to obtain proper commemoration of the nine enslaved Africans, known as “the Divine Nine”. Why these nine, and why this place?


Sixth and Market, you may realize, is the location of the Liberty Bell pavilion, with Independence Hall nearby. Here’s the drum circle that performed before and during the event, with Independence Hall in the background.

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Sixth and Market is also the site of the former Robert Morris house, which served as the President’s house, or first White House, in the early years of the nation. One of the speakers at the event noted that Robert Morris, who used his personal wealth to help finance the Revolution, became rich because of slave labor – the work of slaves was essential to the birth of the nation.

The Robert Morris house had slave quarters attached to it, and this is where Washington’s slaves lived. Liberty and Independence, of course, were to be reserved for whites. It is likely that Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Law in the Robert Morris House, in the shadow of Independence Hall. From the President’s House web site:

The story of the President’s House is thus one of achievement and infamy — of the birth of a free nation and indefensible slavery existing side-by-side. It is a story of remarkable bravery, highlighted by the escape to freedom by Washington’s chef, Hercules, and Washington’s wife’s personal servant, Oney Judge. As a nation, we have a compelling obligation to illuminate the history of this house and its inhabitants in all its fullness. What better place to do this than on the threshold of the Liberty Bell?

What is known of the lives of the nine slaves who labored for Washington and his wife, Martha, at the Robert Morris house, can be found in brief biographies on this site. Oney Judge was one of two slaves who escaped from the Washingtons. From her biography, describing the circumstances of her escape:

Mrs. Washington’s eldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Custis, married English expatriate Thomas Law on March 20, 1796. Washington invited the couple to visit Philadelphia and stay at the President’s House. Mrs. Washington informed Oney that she was to be given as a gift to the bride.

Oney planned her escape with the aid of her free black friends. She slipped away one night in late May or June 1796 while the Washingtons were having dinner, and was hidden by her friends until she could find passage on a northbound ship. Oney either went directly to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or arrived there by way of New York City.

There was a substantial free black population in Philadelphia at the time, and it is gratifying to know they were able to aid Judge in her escape. It is mortifying to know how vigorously George Washington, at Martha’s urging, pursued Judge’s capture and return (he was not successful). Part of the July 3rd event was a reenactment or portrayal of each of the nine slaves, or the “Divine Nine”. These three women each portrayed Oney Judge at different stages in her long life.

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One of the speakers talked about how, when the planned commemoration to the nine slaves is finally built, blacks can bring their children to the Liberty Bell site and finally feel that it has something to do with them, because their story will finally be told and heard. I remembered bringing my niece and nephew to see the Liberty Bell a few years ago. They had such a great time and I am quite sure that they felt the Liberty Bell had meaning for them. They are third generation Americans; their ancestors weren’t even in this country during the Revolution or Civil War. Yet because we have white skin, it is easy for us to claim our sense of ownership and pride in history – and easy for us not to think much about whose story isn’t being told, who doesn’t get to share in that sense of ownership and pride. I am anxious for this new work to be completed, and excited to think that people will, in the future, be consciously walking into the Liberty Bell pavilion across the threshold of the former slave quarters of the President’s House. It is truly poetic justice.

Signs at the event:

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Crowd scene:

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There were some white people there, but it would have been nice if they were a little better represented. Thanks, ATAC, for the July 3rd celebration, and for all your tireless efforts.

Comments

  1. #1 Enneract
    July 6, 2008

    just what we need, more racism in the name of ‘equality’.

  2. #2 SKM
    July 6, 2008

    Thanks for this post, and the link to the biographies. I look forward to visiting when the memorial is complete (I’ve never been to the Liberty Bell)

  3. #3 bill
    July 6, 2008

    In Australia, “Australia Day” is often called “Invasion Day” because of the history involving Aboriginal peoples, and increasing numbers of people from all backgrounds refuse to celebrate it until everyone is represented. I’ve been wondering whether there was a US equivalent focused on Independence Day, so thanks for posting this. Is there a similar response by Native Americans?

  4. #4 Russell
    July 6, 2008

    Texas celebrates Juneteenth, remembering that on the 19th of June in 1865, the order was issued freeing all slaves in the state. I understand many other states are now celebrating this holiday, also.

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    July 6, 2008

    just what we need, more racism in the name of ‘equality’.

    Yeah fuckwit, talking about the history of American slavery is “racism”.

  6. #6 Temaharay
    July 6, 2008

    Wow, I learned something interesting today. Thanks Zuska.

    I am always surprised by the lack of Black Americans in any historical context. I guess that is due to the powerless position that was thrust upon them throughout most of American history, but these were people too.

    They occupied the US for as long as Whites had, they lived life (often a very hard one) in the USA just like anybody else and made a strong mark covering every section and historical era of your country.

    It’s also interesting to see this darker side of Washington; although I already knew of his ownership of slaves.

    Thanks again, I think have a bit of reading to do.

  7. #7 Abel Pharmboy
    July 6, 2008

    May I add “flaming rectal distillate” to the characterization of Enneract? By what theory of logic could equality be considered racism?

    Z, I’m really glad you posted this. We Yankees often grow up with this idealized version of American history – we’d take class trips to Philly and I lived there for four years yet still had no idea about the Divine Nine and Washington having slaves in the then-national capital while freemen were just that.

    Southern kids seem to learn a lot more about black history – while some remain racist, I find that many folks down here spend a lot of time thinking about how to reconcile their liberal views of social justice today while their British ancestors were highly likely to own slaves. It’s terrific to see that kids in the Northeast will have to learn more about slavery than they might otherwise when visiting the Liberty Bell like I did as a kid.

    We tend to celebrate Juneteenth – commemoration of the 19 June 1865 declaration of emancipation among slaves in Galveston, TX. While the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves effective New Year’s Day 1863, news didn’t travel to Texas for another two years, in part because news could be kept from the slaves by the Confederate soldiers. Juneteenth occurred about two months after the Confederate surrenders at Appomattox and Bennett Place.

    A couple dozen states now recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday – only a few in the South but, as you might expect, it’s pretty big in Texas.

  8. #8 Abel Pharmboy
    July 7, 2008

    P.S. I saw that the Inky discussed the event and landmark on the 4th here.

  9. #9 Zuska
    July 7, 2008

    Abel, thanks for that link!

  10. #10 Samia
    July 8, 2008

    Scienceblogs is a funny place. There are wonderful posts like this one, and then there are references to PLoS as “the nigger of the publishing world” (care of Greg Laden).

  11. #11 deang
    July 12, 2008

    Comment #3 above, from bill, asks if there is a similar response by Native Americans. Instead of celebrating Thanksgiving, some Native Americans hold a National Day of Mourning on the fourth Thursday in November.

    Something else said of George Washington is that the mere mention of his name caused regional Native Americans to cry because of his reputation as a ruthless Indian killer.

  12. #12 DrugMonkey
    July 15, 2008

    Samia, yes, Sb is a funny place (as is the blogosphere generally) in that people occasionally say some intentionally or unintentionally wacky stuff. Sometimes they apologize, sometimes someone takes them to task, sometimes it is best to let it go. Even those who make a complete knucklehead of themselves regularly also have nuggets of tasty blogging.

    One of the best parts of Sb, I find, are the commenters who are reliable about raising the shenanigans flag, as you do here. So thanks for that.

  13. #13 Samia
    July 15, 2008

    When people tell me to let something go, I consider the source of that sentiment. It usually comes from someone in the majority. Just something I’ve noticed. I try not to let that cloud the situation at hand too much, but it’s a damn convenient coincidence that the people who tell me to calm down about all manner of stupid shit are people who have no direct reason to be as offended as I. I notice a lot of racism in my real life, I come to science sites to relax and try to enjoy the company of more educated people, and I am that much more surprised when I see weird stuff here. I’m not losing sleep over Greg’s blog, believe me. And if I thought all of SB, or even that other dude’s blog, was worthless, I would never read it. Thanks for your kind words.

  14. #14 DrugMonkey
    July 17, 2008

    ah, yes. well the thing about educated people is that they suffer this little occupational hazard of thinking that they are infallible. because, you know, a lot of the time they do know what in the heck they are talking about. and not infrequently are the most progressive person they know with substantial effort in their past to demonstrate same. so when they goof up, well, they have a hard time backing down.

    perhaps obviously, going by my recent blog post, I do not say this to excuse anyone’s behavior….

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