In an Urban Neighborhood, History Hides Under Our Noses
When I drive down Germantown Ave in Philadelphia to pick up the carpool at my son’s Quaker School, I pass through busy urban stop-and-go traffic, through the upscale Chestnut Hill section and the artsy multi-culti Mt. Airy into Germantown.
In Germantown, I pass butcher shops, beauty parlors, day care centers, churches and music schools. On Wednesdays I pass the farmer’s market where, in front of a colorful mural, bearded Amish men in hats and suspenders sell their fresh corn and tomatoes to mostly African-American customers. On Fridays one particular block is filled with Muslim men in white and women in black, their brown eyes peeping out of their full hijab. There’s even a boutique called “World of Hijab.”
But, as I was reminded last Friday, this neighborhood was not always urban, and its history can be surprising.
On Friday, I attended the re-opening, after nearly two years of restoration, of the house nicknamed the “Germantown White House.”
The Deshler-Morris House, also known as the Germantown White House, located at 5442 Germantown Ave in Philadelphia, was built in 1772. The Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown was fought practically in its front yard.
The house doesn’t call attention to itself. It stands modestly, in between School House Lane and Coulter Street, right next door to the Free Library, Quaker meetinghouse and school, across the street from the Impacting Your World Church.
A casual passerby would never know that for a period of time in 1793 and 1794, this house was the home of the President of the United States.
In 1793 the Yellow fever epidemic swept through Philadelphia, killing about one thousand people. President Washington, his household and cabinet fled to Germantown, renting the house from Colonel Isaac Franks.
“He fled to Germantown?” A present-day resident might chuckle at the thought.
But in October 1793, Germantown was the countryside. It stood ten miles northwest of Philadelphia, refreshingly green and cool, a secluded place untouched by the Yellow Fever epidemic that raged in the crowded and dirty streets of the City of Brotherly Love.
This cramped room served as Washingron's “Oval Office.”
Here, in these tiny rooms, along with Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and other leaders, the President dealt with matters of state.
Washington returned to the Deshler-Morris House the following year to escape the heat and humidity of Philadelphia, with his wife Martha, his two grandchildren Nelly and “Wash,” his secretary and staff -- and a number of slaves.
Yes, George Washington not only owned enslaved Africans but brought nine of them to Philadelphia as President. We know their names, including: Samuel “Black Sam” Fraunces, the chef; Hercules, the cook; and several dower slaves including Austin and Moll. But perhaps the most interesting story belongs to the young woman Oney Judge.
Oney Judge was just a young girl when she was brought here, perhaps to serve as a companion to the President’s young granddaughter Nelly.
In Philadelphia, there was already an active abolitionist movement. Oney became acquainted with members of Philadelphia’s large population of free blacks.
In 1796, Mrs. Washington decided to give Oney as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Elizabeth, which would mean sending Oney back to the South. It seems Oney decided to grab what she saw as her only chance to escape.
Free blacks helped Oney escape in May or June of 1796 while the Washingtons were eating dinner. They hid her until she could get passage on a northbound ship, eventually arriving in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Mrs. Washington was outraged and urged her husband to advertize a reward for Oney’s return but the President refused, apparently aware that this would be unpopular in Philadelphia. But later that summer, a friend of Nelly’s recognized Oney in Portsmouth.
The Washingtons took strong legal action to get Oney back.
According to "Washington's Runaway Slave," The Granite Freeman, Concord, New Hampshire (May 22, 1845); reprinted in Frank W. Miller's Portsmouth New Hampshire Weekly, June 2, 1877, under the title "Washington's Runaway Slave, and How Portsmouth Freed Her." Author: Rev. T.H. Adams:
Washington made two attempts to recover her. First, he sent a man by the name of Bassett to persuade her to return; but she resisted all the argument he employed for this end. He told her they would set her free when she arrived at Mount Vernon, to which she replied, "I am free now and choose to remain so.
"Finding all attempts to seduce her to slavery again in this manner useless, Bassett was sent once more by Washington, with orders to bring her and her infant child by force. The messenger, being acquainted with Gov. [then Senator John] Langdon, then of Portsmouth, took up lodgings with him, and disclosed to him the object of his mission.
The good old Governor. (to his honor be it spoken), must have possessed something of the spirit of modern anti-slavery. He entertained Bassett very handsomely, and in the meantime sent word to Mrs. Staines, to leave town before twelve o'clock at night, which she did, retired to a place of concealment, and escaped the clutches of the oppressor.
Shortly after this, Washington died, and, said she, "they never troubled me any more after he was gone. …
When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is, "No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means.
["]Never shall I forget the fire that kindled in her age-bedimmed eye, or the smile that played upon her withered countenance, as I spake of the Redeemer in whom there is neither "bond nor free," bowed with her at the mercy seat and commended her to Him "who heareth prayer" and who regards "the poor and needy when they cry," I felt that were it mine to choose, I would not exchange her possessions, "rich in faith," and sustained, while tottering over the grave, by "a hope full of immortality," for tall the glory and renown of him whose slave she was.
Here are three actresses who portray Oney Judge at the Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia.
The new restoration of the Germantown White House includes interpretive exhibits in the adjacent Bringhurst House, that recount these stories. I’d read the stories before, about Philadelphia and the Revolution, Yellow Fever epidemic, President Washington, his cabinet, and Oney Judge -- but the people and their stories moved me all over again.
The drive down Germantown Ave will never be the same.