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.
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.
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:
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.