Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

Dr. Clarence Lusane

Dr. Clarence Lusane is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the School of International Service at American University. He is also an activist, scholar, lecturer, journalist and author of several books; his most recent is "The Black History of The White House" published in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books.

December 23rd, 2010 4:03 PM

Black History of the President’s House

On December 15, 2010 the National Park Service inaugurated its new exhibit, “President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation” at the Liberty Bell Center pavilion in Philadelphia’s Independence Park. The pavilion has been built on the site where the first home for U.S. presidents once stood, and specifically where George Washington’s domestic slaves labored while he commanded the nation for most of his two terms as the first President of the United States.

For nearly a decade, members of the local community organized to ensure that the exhibit would address the fact that President George Washington enslaved people in this locale, and that their historic presence would be acknowledged and represented here as well. Although initially resistant to the idea, the National Park Service has inaugurated an exhibit that features material telling the story of the nine people enslaved by the Washingtons, and a long struggle has resulted in a very public revelation of some painful truths about the founding of our nation.

The President’s House exhibit provides some critical lessons that President would be wise to observe. One lesson is that presidents ought to fight for their convictions. George Washington’s stated anti-slavery convictions misaligned with his actual political behavior. While professing to abhor slavery and hope for its eventual demise, as president Washington took no real steps in that direction. Freeing his own slaves during his lifetime could have been one of those steps, but instead, Washington promised their emancipation upon his wife Martha’s death. Whether he was simply bowing to the political tenor of a time dominated by Southerners’ defense of slavery or a personal lack of will to stand up to them as the growing abolitionist movement did, we will never conclusively know. But the fact is, Washington not only enslaved a number of individuals in the president’s house during his two terms in office, he aggressively sought to recapture them after they fled to freedom.

A second lesson to consider is that despite Washington’s reluctance to carry out his stated anti-slavery predilections, the movement against slavery grew anyway, including within the president’s very own household (among the men and women he enslaved). While Washington was president and commanding from Philadelphia, at least two people made bold escapes. Oney Judge, who worked principally for the First Lady, escaped to freedom one evening while George and Martha were eating dinner. Hercules, Washington’s well-known personal family chef, took off one year later in 1797. He left on the night the Washingtons were scheduled to move back to Mount Vernon after Washington’s term came to an end. Although Washington considered Hercules one of his most loyal and trusted servants, the prospect of freedom was too powerful to resist.

In both cases, Washington had the opportunity to enact his convictions about “freedom” for those whose lives he had direct control over: he could have simply let them go. Instead, in each instance, he sought persistently and repeatedly, and ultimately unsuccessfully to track them down and have then re-enslaved. Oney Judge and Hercules believed in freedom too, and they risked everything to defy the most powerful man in America to achieve it. Against all odds, they succeeded. It is a tribute to their brave and defiant spirit that the National Park Service has erected this important new historical exhibit.

Thus, the President House exhibit’s most important lesson is not about the country’s first President, but about the voiceless people whose stories have gone untold for centuries. History is not just a series of dates and facts, it involves interpretation, analysis, and point of view. Historic understanding shapes public consciousness, and thus politics and policy decisions, social relations, and access to resources and opportunity.

Philadelphia’s black community fought long and hard to have the commemoration focus on the lives of the people enslaved at the first White House as a way to both redress the past and address the present. While legal slavery no longer exists in this country, the economic and social disparities between whites and people of color in the United States have been stubbornly persistent for decades, with little focused attention from either the White House or Congress. Certainly, a critical part of black support for Barack Obama was rooted in the belief that, as he stated, he would be president to all Americans. While this meant that he would not (and could not) be president only to African Americans, it also should have meant that black interests would not be ignored as they have been so consistently in most administrations. Policies that specifically address the impact of social and economic dislocation on black Americans are as vital to implement as those policies specifically constructed to address the needs of seniors, rural workers, or women.

The opening of the President’s House exhibit and its exposure of the role of slavery in the founding of the country is a propitious moment for reflecting not only on the history of black Americans vis-á-vis the White House and the presidency, but also for a redirection in public policy that begins to seriously address the specific needs of the black community, which will not be met sufficiently by a general, one-size-fits-all approach.

In perhaps his most memorable speech, delivered in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign, and his only major public address to focus on race, Obama stated “[Race] is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” pushing back against those who contend that racial discrimination is no longer an issue. He went on to say, “[We] do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from earlier generations that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”

U.S. history is taught—and for the most part, learned—through filters. In everything from schoolbooks and movies to oral traditions, historical markers, and museums, we are presented with narratives of the nation’s history and evolution. For generations, the dominant stories have validated a view that overly centralizes the experiences, lives, and issues of privileged, white male Americans and silences the voices of others. It has been as though some have an entitlement to historic representation and everyone else does not. “History is always written wrong,” said George Santayana, “and so always needs to be rewritten.” The new President’s House exhibit opening in Philadelphia this week does not rewrite history, but it does finally include the names, stories, and freedom struggles of Americans who for too long have been written out of the national narrative.


You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law Donna Smith Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? Donna Smith We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa Nick Turse Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch Donna Smith The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Enron billionaire John Arnold thinks everyone should believe him when he says we've got to cut pensions because he's so incredibly rich: John...

Mar 5th
4:20 PM
Read More

More in David Sirota's continuing series on the billionaire takeover of PBS: More PBS conflict woes as activists move to eject David Koch from board of...

Mar 3rd
12:35 PM
Read More

Ukraine: One ‘Regime Change’ Too Many? Ray McGovern Is “regime change” in Ukraine the bridge too far for the neoconservative...

Mar 2nd
9:25 PM
Read More

Latest from David Sirota on Enron billionaire John Arnold smuggling anti-pension propaganda into "neutral" institutions like PBS and now, the...

Mar 1st
12:58 PM
Read More

Second Guessing a Life: US Health Care System Robs Security and Human Dignity Donna Smith The dysfunction of the US health care system...

Feb 27th
1:40 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles