George and Martha Washington kept nine people enslaved as their domestic servants in Philadelphia’s First Executive Mansion. This stark chapter in American history gained widespread public attention in 2005, when my employer, the City of Philadelphia, hired a design team to create a permanent, outdoor exhibit commemorating the site of the first “White House,” at the corner of Sixth and Market streets, near the entrance to the Liberty Bell pavilion.
As a contracts lawyer for the City, my work enabled me to attend many meetings of the project’s Oversight Committee, a group comprised of public officials, advocates, historians and scholars. I was captivated by the Committee’s discussions of the challenges confronting them: the exhibit had to transcend brick and mortar and fully engage the conflict between freedom and slavery in a new democracy.
As the City’s project evolved, it became clear to me that the “President’s House” could be interpreted through my passion for quilt art.
Having learned to embroider at a young age, I expanded my skills later in life to learn how to quilt. I quickly learned that quilts were more than utilitarian: They could actually be created to tell stories. In 2009 one of my first art quilts, “NEXT,” was featured in Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi’s book, Journey of Hope: Quilts Inspired by President Barack Obama. Through this opportunity, I became affiliated with many wonderfully talented fiber artists. I called upon these artists and others to contribute to this exhibition, and to my utter amazement, 55 quilters responded creating over 40 quilts!
Like the West African “griot,” or storyteller, this collection of art quilts relates the history of the President’s House and its nine enslaved inhabitants. Carolyn Crump’s Let Freedom Ring and Susan Shie’s Philadelphia Freedom present sinister portraits of the Washingtons as slaveholders. Carol Beck hand appliqués Butterfly Freedom, a quilted journal of Oney Judge’s flight to freedom in New Hampshire, while Rachel Clark’s Tree of Liberty hovers over the President’s House with roots extending towards a graveyard of those who toiled for America without recognition. Locally, a group of Philadelphia quilt artists collaborates to present Whispering Walls, nine independently quilted blocks suspended by chains, each block a biography of an enslaved inhabitant of the Executive Mansion.
With only fabric and thread, we celebrate the humanity, dignity and courage of the nine slaves in the President’s House. These art quilts are intended to provoke a uniquely American dialogue about slavery and freedom in Philadelphia, the paradigm of democracy and jewel of the original thirteen colonies.
Michelle Flamer, a Senior Attorney in the City of Philadelphia Law Department, is an avid fiber artist and curator of The President’s House: Their Untold Stories in Quilts, an exhibition which is on display through September 5 at the National Constitution Center, the Independence Visitor Center and the African American Museum in Philadelphia.