Faith Paulsen's Blog

Faith Paulsen

Faith Paulsen
Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA
December 27
Writer. No relation to Henry Paulson or Gary Paulsen or Pat Paulsen.

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JULY 14, 2009 12:17PM

In an Urban Neighborhood, History Hides Under Our Noses

Rate: 12 Flag

 Bringhurst House facade




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. 


 Deshler-Morris House garden  


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.”


 Germantown 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.



George Washington and family 



  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.


Oney actresses  




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.


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Whoa! An EP! Thanks, editors!
very cool. congrats on the ep!
FLW, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you're back.
Fascinating. And, congrats on the well-deserved EP! Never been to Philly, but now I'd like to visit. This was an awesome story I'd never heard; thank you for sharing it with all of us!
This is excellent, Faith. I read a LOT of history and missed this story. Thanks for sharing and I am glad for the foresight of the people who worked to restore that house and preserve it for this and future generations.

This is really interesting. Congrats on the EP.
Damn--I love posts like this and don't have a minute to read it. Hope to be back tonight :)
Jessabelle, you haven't been to Philly??? ;-) You should come some time. I was born and raised in NYC -- When I came to Philly, I was amazed.

Monte, when the Independence National Historic Park did recent excavations in Philly, especially at the site of Washington's main Phila residence, they discovered remains of the slave quarters. Today, this spot is adjacent to where the Liberty Bell stands. Interpretive exhibits tell the story of the "original sin" in which our nation was founded.

Whoppdedoo and Lainey, thanks so much for stopping by.
I used to buy my drugs right around the corner from there. But when they set before me an open door what the f was I supposed to do?
Great Post!
Love my Germantown and miss my Asher's Candies and Pedro Gunn Music.
Kresskin -- What a story! I can get you Asher's Candies (LOVE their dark chocolate pretzels!!!) but you're on your own for the drugs.
Kresskin -- Just thought about your comment a bit more -- I hope that drug corner isn't still there -- my son goes to school on that street!!????
no, no more fronts in walking distance from the school (that I know of I haven't done drugs in a loooooooong time) colin powell and bill clinton painted over most of the dime stores during the community service week of photo ops in 1997.
I still see Asher's Candies everywhere but the store and factory are no longer in Gtown are they?
Did you get my I have set before thee an open door reference?
Kresskin -- So sorry I was a little behind on that open door bit but now I recognise it as the school's motto! Are you an alum or what??? My kid just started there last Sept. Not sure where the Asher's factory is now. Gotta research that.
I grew up in near Philadelphia and in those days slavery was always referred to as a "southern practice." Thank you for the lovely trip back to this part of America and the enlightenment I've gained from Oney Judge's story. And thank you for doing it all in such a lucid and captivating way.
Congrasts, Kresskin.

Thanks, Ablonde. I didn't know you had a Philly background. Philly has prided itself on its abolitionish history, but recent research by the sister of a friend has shown that, while many Quakers did oppose slavery very early, they were sometimes ostracized by Quaker meetings. The earliest anti-slavery statement in the US came from a Germantown Friends Meeting.
Thoroughly enjoyed this look at a little known historical treasure! Thanks, too, for the account of Oney. That's a story I am unfamiliar with.
Faith – thanks for this excellent post on a bit of forgotten history. These are that kind of stories that definitely merit EP’s and yours is full of interesting facts. Love your photo essay, too!

- rated
gmgaston, Sao Kay and Procopius, and everyone --

If you want to explore these stories further -- there are some very good young adult novels about Oney Judge, including "The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom" by Emily Arnold McCully and "Taking LIberty" by Ann Rinaldi. On the Yellow Fever epidemic, my favorite novel is "Fever 1793" by Laurie Halse Anderson. There's also a nonfiction book called "Bring Out Your Dead."

Or, you could all come to Philly and we'll tour its history together!
Faith, I lived in the Philadelphia area for 20 years (1966-1985). For a long time, I lived in Mt. Airy. Both of my children were born at Chestnut Hill Hospital. My great-grandfather was born in Germantown in 1876. But this historical gem had not been uncovered while I was there. BTW, lived in MontCo for a long time, too. My kids went to a Montessori school on Butler Pike in Blue Bell. Thanks for taking me back.
Hey, Julie, I know that Montessori school! It's about 15 mins from here.
Great post, Faith. I love visiting historical places and will put this on my list.
and if you want the drunken version of the Oney Judge tale...
I found this interesting and Ilove your writing
bluebees, I checked out the Drunken History version -- That's a cool way to teach history. sierrasong and Rolling, thanks so much for reading.