A tiny nonprofit and an unincorporated group kept the pressure on the National Park Service to tell the story of how President George Washington held on to his slaves in the original US capital after Pennsylvania abolished slavery.
A story out of Philadelphia this Fourth of July generated an unusual amount of independent news coverage. The National Park Service is excavating the foundations of the house in Philadelphia that served as the executive mansion before the White House was completed and the capital moved to Washington, DC.
The charity angle on this is that it appears that two small groups played an important role in keeping the effort alive in the face of initial resistance to the dig from the NPS, eventually enlisting the help of the city of Philadelphia and two Congressmen to obtain funding for the dig and an appropriate memorial.
One purpose of the dig is to document evidence of how the residents lived, more specifically any evidence of President George Washington's use of slaves while he lived there in the 1790s. The mansion was located in what is now Independence National Historical Park, and the former slave quarters were right next to what is now the Liberty Bell Center.
Pennsylvania had passed a Gradual Abolition Act in 1780, which allowed residents of other states to hold slaves, but provided that they would be freed if they remained in the state for more than six months. From letters (quoted extensively in the article by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post) we know that Pres. Washington rotated his slaves back to Virginia every six months to defeat the residency provision and tried to keep the real reason for the rotation away from both the public and the slaves themselves.
Keeping this sad but historically important story alive was a small organization, the Independence Hall Association (EIN 23-6414324 Form 990), which provided a small amount of support for historian Edward Lawler, Jr., as he made the case for the excavation of the mansion. The organization's web site includes the historical resources and the fascinating twentieth century history that included the 1951 razing of the remaining walls of the President's house (not recognized as such at the time) to create Independence Mall. There is also a live web cam of the dig.
In a different vein, a group called Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (evidently unincorporated), started by defense attorney Michael Coard, advocated more directly for a suitable memorial for the slaves by holding a symbolic funeral service at the site on July 3 of this year. The Philadelphia Inquirer offered video coverage of the event that brought attention to the contrast of having the slave quarters beneath the site of the Liberty Bell.
The New York Times (Niko Koppel) offered the best photo of the site as it appears today, but the lead coverage refers only to unnamed historians and community activists, with Mr. Lawler providing only a brief quote near the end of the article.
San Diego Union Tribune (Carl Larsen) in its coverage mentioned the role of Gary B. Nash, history professor emeritus at UCLA and offered the best top view diagram of the site showing the location of the uncovered slave quarters.