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Inauguration Day: The View From Philadelphia

January 24, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In December, she blogged about the similarities between the Bernie Madoff and New Era Philanthropy scandals.)

Inauguration_philly2 Freezing cold, ice and snow on the ground, but four hundred people gathered on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, where the Liberty Bell and the Constitution are displayed, to watch Barack Obama's inauguration on a giant screen. Some in wheelchairs, some on lawn chairs, lots with cameras; people of all ages and looks bundled up under a blazing blue sky and delirious sunshine. We clapped, we screamed, we whistled, we laughed, we held babies up to see; we cried with joy and savored the monumentalism of the moment. Some drifted off before the very end; we who stayed were rewarded by Reverend Lowery's prayers of thanksgiving and hope, said plain.

Nearby, close enough to catch our cheers, is the site of the President's House, which was occupied by George Washington and John Adams from 1790-1800, when Philadelphia was the capital of the brand-new United States. Washington brought nine enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon to work there, a piece of history uncovered only recently and the subject of controversy over how best to reconstruct the building and represent that past.

Two of Washington's servants, apparently underwhelmed by the opportunity to serve in the first White House, escaped into free Pennsylvania. Surely somewhere, maybe on Independence Mall, some of their descendents were in a crowd on Tuesday, watching a giant President Obama lead our still-being "brought forth" nation into the future.

For more information about the President's House:

-- Kathryn Pyle

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Posted by Blog Reader and Kaye Fan  |   January 25, 2009 at 01:27 PM

Thanks. The ironies and resonances of watching Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration within a few feet of the President's House, where nine enslaved Africans worked for George and Martha Washington, are enormous.

A couple points of clarification -- although Pennsylvania had begun the process of abolishing slavery in the 1790s with the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, there were in fact many, many enslaved men, women and children in the Commonwealth when Philadelphia was the capital. Also, Oney Judge, a seamstress for Martha Washington, who escaped, made her way to New Hampshire, knowing that remaining in Pennsylvania would be too dangerous.

Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   February 01, 2009 at 05:36 PM

Thanks for your comment! You are absolutely right: though there was an inspiring and contentious battle over slavery that began in the late 1600s in the Philadelphia area, slavery was still legal there (with some exceptions and some restrictions) until 1847. I should have said "free-er Pennsylvania," (or simply been correct!) to indicate the comparatively greater resources available in Philadelphia for enslaved Virginians wishing to escape.
For others who are interested in more information, check out the PBS site: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p249.html

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