Just outside the Liberty Bell Pavilion is an open-air exhibit focusing on the slaves that served George Washington during his presidency in Philadelphia. The President’s House site was home to nine slaves during Washington’s presidency. Washington (illegally, but apparently no one was going to prosecute him), rotated himself and his slaves in and out of Pennsylvania to get past a Pennsylvania law which would have freed any slaves living in the state for longer than six months. Pennsylvania included a loophole in the law for Congressmen, but not the Executive or Judicial branch. Washington argued that since he was a resident of Virginia, the law shouldn’t apply to him, however once Attorney General Edmond Randolph was forced to free several slaves, Washington decided to take no chances.
After archaeological excavations, the site was memorialized in 2010. The focus on slavery and the free black population of Philadelphia is an interesting juxtaposition with the Liberty Bell Pavilion a few steps away. The site consists of an outline of the house, a subterranean view down into the foundations, video screens, interpretive signs and these footprints – symbolizing the escape of house slave Oney Judge.
Oney escaped by simply leaving the house during a party and boarding a ship for New Hampshire. After her escape from Philadelphia, Washington made several attempts to recapture her. He found out where she was when a friend of Martha Washington’s granddaughter spotted the escaped slave. Washington asked his Treasury Secretary to order a customs collector in Portsmouth to capture Oney and send her back (he refused – there were legal procedures to return runaway slaves, but leaning on federal employees to help recover personal property was definitely not the proper procedure). Two years later, Washington asked his nephew to travel to New Hampshire and seize Oney (along with her child who had been born in New Hampshire – the child of a slave being property of the master). The nephew confided his intentions to the governor of New Hampshire, who sent a warning to Oney, who escaped again. After Washington’s death, there were no further attempts to recapture her.
Location: Old City. Free, open 24/7, although the video screens are not on at night.