by Len Lear
When I was in public school, we were all taught that George Washington, “The Father of Our Country,” could do no wrong. His many defeats in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War were pretty much minimized because, after all, he won the big one. Not only that, he (allegedly) never told a lie.
In 2002, after years of scholarly research, we learned, however, that President George Washington had eight (and later, nine) enslaved Africans in his house while he lived in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1797. The house was only one block from Independence Hall, and though it was torn down in 1832, it housed the enslaved men and women Washington brought to the city as well as serving as the country’s first executive office building.
Intense controversy erupted over what this newly resurfaced evidence of enslaved people in Philadelphia meant for the site that was next door to the new home for the Liberty Bell. For Marc Howard Ross, this conflict raised a related and troubling question: why and how did slavery in the North fade from public consciousness to such a degree that most Americans have perceived it entirely as a “Southern problem?”
Ross, 76, Professor Emeritus at Bryn Mawr College, will discuss his new book, “Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory,” at the Cliveden historical house, 6401 Germantown Ave., on Friday, April 12, 7 p.m.
Ross, who has been teaching at Bryn Mawr College since 1968, has an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and master’s and doctorate degrees from Northwestern University. He is the author of five books and is on the editorial boards of three scholarly journals.
He became interested in the subject of slavery in the North after publishing a book on “intense political conflicts involving symbolic rather than material concerns such as the headscarves controversy in France or the Confederate flag displays in the South, and the battle in Philadelphia over the President’s House on Independence National Historical Park was raging over the nine enslaved people George Washington had living in his house there from 1790-97.
“Quickly I realized that I knew little if anything about Northern slavery despite the fact that I had attended public schools in New York for 13 years and had taken American history courses in college.
“In fact, when I told people about the President’s House here and the enslaved people he brought here, I was told his having slaves here was not possible because Pennsylvania was a free state at the time, and there were many Quakers living here who did not own slaves. This was wrong, however, as I soon learned, and it got me to ask about Northern slavery more generally about which I knew very little.”
In his book, Ross explores the history of Northern slavery, visiting sites such as the African Burial Ground in New York, Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, the ports of Rhode Island, old mansions in Massachusetts, prestigious universities, etc. Ross explains how Northerners had collectively forgotten 250 years of human bondage and the recent — and continuing — struggles over what has now been learned.
In his exhaustive research, Ross was most surprised about “how little I knew about the history of slavery in the region in which I had spent virtually my entire life. Second, I just assumed that there were few records available for historians and others so that the story of Northern enslavement could not be told. This was just not the case, though, as recent generations of historians have shown with the diligent research they have done in recent decades.”
Ross was asked about the likelihood that this information about slavery in the North will be incorporated into history classes in high schools and colleges across the country for future generations.
“This is happening but very slowly,” he replied. “One reason is that this generation of school teachers did not learn about Northern enslavement in their schooling. But there are more presentations to them about it today, more television programs outlining it, more books written about specific regions, more museum exhibits, etc. More needs to be done, but when stories are told in one place, it often gets people in other towns and cities to investigate their own past, as is starting to happen here in Philadelphia at places like Cliveden.”
Getting away from his book, we asked Ross what was the hardest thing he has ever done? “Great question,” he answered. “Climbing in the Alps was certainly hard, but so was trying to hit a hard slider after seeing a fast ball on the previous pitch.”
If he could meet and spend time with any individuals, living and/or dead, who would they be and why? “Man; another toughie. Well two people I really would love to talk to about their lives are Frederick Douglass and Jackie Robinson. Both really made a difference for their generation and successive ones. I could probably name dozens of others, too, but I will stop there.”
For more information about the April 12 event, visit cliveden.org. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org