Avenging The Ancestors Coalition events in 2018 and 2019 (Photos by Michael Coard/The Philadelphia Tribune).
By Michael Coard
Before I highlight the historic 11th anniversary of the Slavery Memorial/America’s First “White House” event that will take place on Wednesday in acknowledgment of what occurred in 2010, allow me to mention the historic 156th anniversary of the slavery-related event that took place just a few days ago on Dec. 6.
On that Dec. 6 date, it was precisely 156 years ago that the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly thought and still mistakenly think this amendment ended slavery and involuntary servitude. It did not. It simply created slavery by another name, i.e., mass incarceration.
Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States ….”
In other words, instead of allowing the enslavement and involuntary servitude of people simply because they were Black, it allowed the enslavement and involuntary servitude of people simply because of “racistly” created, “racistly” targeted, and “racistly” enforced criminal laws. Those laws, known as Black Codes, were passed beginning in 1865 and through the early 1960s for the sole purpose of legalizing the criminalization of recently enslaved Blacks and doing so in a manner directly consistent with the tricky language of Section 1 of the 13th Amendment.
That tricky language is the result of the cowardly compromise of the victorious slavery-opposing North that allowed the defeated slavery-loving South to co-author the amendment. And those co-authors in Congress incredibly included the former Confederate vice president, four former Confederate generals, five former Confederate colonels, six former Confederate cabinet officers, and 58 former Confederate Congress members. The very same racists who engaged in a treasonous war to keep Blacks enslaved are the very same racists who were instrumental in creating the language of the 13th Amendment.
Enough about that. Let’s now discuss the upcoming Dec. 15 event.
It was exactly 11 years ago on Dec. 15, 2010, that the grand opening of the first slavery memorial of its kind in the history of America took place.
It happened here in Philadelphia at Sixth and Market Streets, which is the site of America’s first “White House” — officially known as the President’s House — where George Washington in 1790 began enslaving nine of the 316 Black men, women and children he had held in brutal bondage at his Mount Vernon, Virginia, plantation.
Thanks to eight consecutive years, from 2002-2010, of instigating agitation and relentless activism of a grassroots organization called Avenging The Ancestors Coalition/ATAC (of which I am a proud founding member), and thanks to the initial funding and governmental leadership of Mayor John Street, the powerful influence, persuasive assistance, and financial assistance of Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, and the surprising open-mindedness and “woke” collaboration of Independence National Historical Park, history was made on Dec. 15, 2010.
The spectacular slavery memorial, designed by a Black-owned Philadelphia architectural firm, consists of a massive open-air 24/7/365 accessible permanent exhibit with several motion-activated television monitors displaying re-enactors in the roles of the enslaved, a lengthy story wall explaining the history of the site, a large vitrine allowing viewers to look at the actual foundation of part of the house untouched since our enslaved ancestors and Washington resided there in the late 18th century, and a “slave quarters” area just about 10 feet away from the main entrance to the new Liberty Bell Center (that opened in 2003).
Think about that 10-foot proximity for a minute. As you enter this heaven of liberty — the Liberty Bell Center — you literally have to cross the hell of slavery — the “Slave Quarters.” If that’s not the height of historical hypocrisy, nothing is.
Here’s how the story began: Construction of the house started in 1767 at the direction of the widow of William L. Masters, a man who not only had been mayor of Philadelphia in the 1750s but also had been a prosperous enslaver.
In 1772, the widow gave the house as a wedding gift to one of her daughters who married William Penn’s grandson. Five years later, during the Revolutionary War in the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, the British occupied the city and commandeered the house, using it as headquarters after Gen. Washington and his troops were forced to retreat to Valley Forge.
But in 1778, after the rebellious colonists began turning the tide of the war, Washington, before leaving Valley Forge to lead other battles, assigned Major Gen. Benedict Arnold (who later became a traitor) to take over at the reclaimed house.
After the colonists ultimately defeated the Redcoats in 1783, Congress went through the process of creating an independent nation. And in the Federal Residence Act of 1790, Congress selected Philadelphia as the nation’s first capital.
Following a fire that caused severe damage to the house, Robert Morris, known as “The Financier of the Revolution,” bought it and from 1780 to 1790 rehabilitated it. By the way, much of his extravagant wealth resulted from investing extensively in slavery.
The nine Black men, women and children enslaved by Washington in Philadelphia were just that — men, women and children. They had hopes. They had dreams. They had aspirations. They weren’t mere “slaves.” Instead, they were enslaved human beings. They had names. They were Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Hercules, Joe (Richardson), Moll, Oney Judge, Paris, and Richmond (all nine of whom had been among the 316 enslaved by Washington at Mount Vernon).
For more information, call ATAC at 215-552-8751 or log on to its website at AvengingTheAncestors.com. And for even more detailed information, you can read my 2005 essay in the scholarly Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography at jstor.org. It’s entitled “The ‘Black Eye’ on George Washington’s ‘White House.’”
America’s psychotic desire to, at worst, enslave Blacks or, at the very least, to hold Blacks down in a condition of slavery-like servitude didn’t end in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment and didn’t end in 2010 with the installation of the Slavery Memorial at America’s first “White House.”
That psychotic desire was still here in 2020 when 74,216,154 racist Americans or racism enablers (unsuccessfully) voted to reelect the blatantly racist, KKK-endorsed and Nazi-condoning Republican president.
And that psychotic desire is still here in 2021 as evidenced by the approximately 10,000 Klanners, Nazis, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other extremist right-wing racists who, on Jan. 6, attempted a violent and deadly coup at the United States Capitol to reinstate the fascistic orange racist.
That psychotic desire is also evidenced, as the New York Law School-based Brennan Center for Justice points out, by the fact that “Between January 1 and July 14, more than 400 bills that included provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states. [And] during that same time, 18 states have [already] enacted 30 laws that make it harder for people to vote.”
By “bills,” the Brennan Center obviously means the legislative initiatives of racist Republican state senators and representatives. And by “people,” the Brennan Center obviously means Black people.
So what’s the solution to America’s psychotic, historic and relentless racism?
Well, first, visit the Slavery Memorial on Dec. 15 and pour libation. But if you’re unable to physically go there, go there spiritually and acknowledge those nine enslaved ancestors from your home on that day and pour libation.
Second (and forever): “Never forget. Always avenge.”
Opinion contributor Michael Coard is an attorney and radio host. His work appears weekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He wrote this column for the Philadelphia Tribune, where it first appeared.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.