Celebrate Black History Month and President’s Day!
Portrait of George Washington's Cook, Hercules.
Attributed to Gilbert Stuart. Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Spain
What better way than archeology to explore America’s history during Black History Month and on President’s Day? Think about it: archeology is a democratic science that doesn’t discriminate, shines light on historic truths, and encourages civic dialogue towards a better society.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, preservationists secured historic homes and sites associated with American presidents. They wanted to help Americans remember the contributions of “great men,” such as George Washington, in laying the foundation for American society, culture, and politics. Ironically, the preservation of sites associated with Washington and other presidents created laboratories for learning about black history.
George Washington was born at Popes Creek Plantation in Virginia, now George Washington Birthplace National Monument. Some of the earliest historic archeology was done at Washington's birthplace. More recent studies focused as much on enslaved blacks who worked the plantation as they did on those who owned it.
Washington lived as a young man at Ferry Farm, where archeologists have recovered a slave quarter among other structures. When Washington visited his sister at her house, Kenmore, he would have also interacted with enslaved blacks, and archeologists have also found evidence of their activities.
During his presidency, Washington lived at the President’s House in Philadelphia. Enslaved persons lived with him. Archeologists uncovered the foundations of the house and kitchen where Hercules, an enslaved African and renowned chef, worked and prepared the food for the President’s household and for dignitaries. Washington’s private residence was Mount Vernon, where archeologists have recovered the “house for families” as well as outbuildings where enslaved blacks worked.
Archival documents, material culture, architecture, and archeological sites first investigated for insights on Washington, for example, now point to a complex cultural landscape of social and work relationships. Similar research has taken place at the homes of other presidents, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Poplar Forest, James Madison’s Montpelier, James Monroe’s Ashlawn, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, and Ulysses S. Grant’s White Haven.
Archeology has a way of providing an objective perspective on the past, a way of understanding America’s presidents either as “flawed fathers” or “men of their time.” Today, visitors to presidential homes can learn about the presidents as complex people who could both champion democratic values and enslave fellow humans. They can see evidence of the impact of slavery on both the presidents and the people who served them, and on the development of American culture. People are complicated, just like history, and archeology proves how much African American history impacts our understanding of the presidents’ beliefs and actions.