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A Flawed Father

15 Feb

As a lover of American history, I think one of the most extraordinary early moments in our nation was the first peaceful transfer of power — when President George Washington handed over the reins to his successor, John Adams.

But as a Philadelphian, I’m also keenly aware of Washington’s flaws. I say “as a Philadelphian,” because of course our city was the first capital city of the young United States, and Washington lived here in what we now refer to as the President’s House.

Washington owned enslaved people. More to the point, at the time, Pennsylvania had a law that if an enslaved person lived here for more than 6 months, he or she would become free.

Portrait of George Washington's Cook [Hercules]

Portrait of George Washington’s Cook Hercules, reputedly by artist Gilbert Stuart. Copyright © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Used by permission.

So President George Washington, father of our country, purposely sent the human beings he owned out of Pennsylvania every six months, so that none of them could ever become free.

Just think about the cruelty of that for a moment. Imagine being an enslaved person living in Philadelphia. You would likely have socialized with people in the city’s lively free black community. At a minimum, you would have had some level of interaction with them. You would have gleaned that after six months in Philadelphia, you too would have the opportunity to become free.

And then — cruelty of cruelties — as the time approached that you would have gained your freedom, you would have been exiled back to Washington’s Mt. Vernon plantation in Virginia. Or perhaps just taken across the river to New Jersey for a day or two. Either exercise would have accomplished the same malevolent goal: Resetting the countdown clock to freedom.

This isn’t an imaginary exercise. It actually happened to real people. One of them was a man known as Hercules, a respected chef who gained unusual prominence for an enslaved person. (Among other things, he had his portrait pointed, reputedly by the famous artist Gilbert Stuart. See illustration at right.)

Even while Hercules enjoyed remarkable prestige, he was still legally treated as property. And thus it is probably not surprising that, on George Washington’s 65 birthday, Hercules escaped. Not only did he escape, but he was never recaptured, as this story recounts.

Today, there is an embryonic effort underway to try to get the above painting of Hercules brought back to the US from Spain, where it currently hangs in a museum. One blogger proposes that it should be swapped with an unrelated (but meaningful to Spain) painting from the White House in Washington DC.

While I think it would be quite fitting for Hercules’s portrait to hang in one of our most revered national landmarks, I can’t help but think about another landmark much closer to home. The Liberty Bell is located just steps away from the grounds of the old President’s House in Philadelphia.

Either way, on this Presidents’ Day, spare a moment to remember this extraordinary person. Regardless of where Hercules finished out his life — it doesn’t seem to have been Philadelphia — he did so on his own terms: In freedom.


What I love about Philadelphia

4 Jul
English: Fairmount Park near where Cresheim an...

English: Fairmount Park near where Cresheim and Wissahickon Creeks meet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the Fourth of July. And I especially love living in the place where the United States was born. Philadelphia is a grand place to celebrate our birthday.

In honor of the Fourth, here are a few of the things I love about Philadelphia.

1. Walkability. Sure, there are some exceptions. But by and large, this is a very darn walkable city. And with new additions like Penn Park, it’s getting more pedestrian-friendly all the time.

2. Our whole park system. I’ll probably do a post on this someday, but for now I’ll just note that Fairmount Park is the largest city park system in the world. Bet you didn’t know that.

3. Neighborhoods. Yup, we’re a city of neighborhoods. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times. But one of the things that actually means is that Philadelphia isn’t really a city of 1.5 million. Rather, it’s more like a series of small circles of 5,000 to 20,000 people. That can make our city feel a lot more homey (okay, or sometimes stifling) than it might seem at first glance.

4. The Mural Arts Program. I love being able to look up and see something creative rather than yet another casino ad. Of course not all the art is to my taste, but what is?

5. SEPTA. Seriously, it’s a phenomenally useful way to get around our city. There have been days when I went for not just the trifecta but the quad-fecta in using a trolley, regional rail, subway, and bus line.

6. Newspapers. I know I was hard on the DN and the Inquirer just a couple of days ago, but I rant because I care. And I’m very glad they’re out there fighting the good fight and documenting the good, the bad, and the nutty here in our city. So thanks Daily News, Inquirer, Al Dia, Tribune, and all the other voices trying hard to tell our region’s story.

I could add a whole lot more, but let me end here for now.  Happy Fourth, everyone. Be safe, peaceful, and kind to each other.

Telling the story of Latino Philadelphia

4 May

The newspaper Al Día has long been a leader in improving our city, often by spotlighting people who are doing good work, and by stubbornly advocating for change when needed.200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia - book cover

Erika Almiron headshot

Erika Almiron, Juntos

Recently the paper published a beautiful coffee table book with photos showing the history of Latinos in Philadelphia. It is available for $39.95 from Temple University Press (and less from Amazon).

See photos from the book in this slideshow.

Then check out this fascinating WHYY Radio Times interview featuring:

  • Erika Almiron, executive director of the South Philadelphia immigrant advocacy group Juntos (“Together”).

Here are some things I learned from the interview:

  • Latin American revolutionary leaders embraced Philadelphia during the 18th and 19th centuries due to the city’s Quakerly tolerance of religious and political diversity.
  • During World War II, Mexican “braceros*” came to Philadelphia on a guest worker program to work for the railroads. After the war, they returned to Mexico.
  • The church La Miligrosa, in the Spring Garden section of the city, is affectionately known as “the Plymouth Rock of Latino Catholics in Philadelphia.”
  • Voting-rights advocacy by Latino Philadelphians has had national implications for other groups working to get full access to the polls.

Listen to the WHYY radio show.

*Bracero translates approximately as “strong arms,” and is the informal name for a US government program to bring manual laborers and other workers from Mexico to the United States on temporary visas. The program lasted from the 1940s to the 1960s.