Unedited Version of Michael Coard, Esquire’s “Slavery Memorial/President’s House” Grand Opening Speech, December 15, 2010
Good afternoon. My name is Michael Coard, and I am a founding member of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition, also known as “ATAC,” A.T.A.C. In addition, I am known by many as “the angriest Black man in America.” However, today, I am not angry, not at all. Instead, I am happy..., very happy..., ecstatic even. And that’s because history is being made today.
But let me start with yesterday — actually with eight years ago in 2002 when all of this began. That’s when ATAC was founded. And we were founded for the sole purpose of making sure that “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” would be told about this site, this President’s House site.
And that truth pertains to slavery, to the enslavement of my ancestors, our ancestors, by President George Washington at America’s first “White House,” which was right here at this very site where we now stand. Imagine that. Imagine that about 220 years ago in 1790, Black men, Black women, and Black children were enslaved... right here! Imagine that solely as a result of the luck of fate, there but for the grace of God go I, go you, go us, and everybody else who looks like us. We all could have been enslaved as one of the nine here among the 316 that President George Washington held in brutal bondage at Mt. Vernon, Virginia.
And when we talk about slavery, we must talk about what it really means. Slavery wasn’t just a matter of the malicious loss of freedom. It was the loss of everything: the loss of freedom, of culture, of family, of land, of language, of name, of religion, of human status, and often of limb and even life.
Back in 2002, none of this truth about slavery was being told, despite the fact that Independence Park officials who worked here back in September of 1973 knew all about it then but did absolutely nothing about it. And even in 2002 when, by confrontation, we reminded them of what they clearly already knew, they continued to ignore it. Fortunately though, a new group of Independence Park officials were hired later, including some who are present here today. And they understood that history caretakers — which is what they are — must follow wherever old and new information leads them. And it led them here, to the available truth, to the whole available truth, and to nothing but the available truth.
But there is much more truth to be uncovered, much more truth to be exposed, and much more truth to be presented.
Today’s Slavery Memorial/President’s House project (which is how ATAC refers to it) is just a first step. But it’s a great first step, a giant cultural leap for mankind and womankind, for Blacks and for Whites. For Blacks, it is our Mt. Rushmore, our Statue of Liberty, our Liberty Bell.
And to those who complain that slavery is too prominent and too conspicuous in this project, I must say this: It is so prominent and so conspicuous because slavery totally permeated the President’s House, starting backwards at the end with President George Washington from 1790-1797 when he enslaved Black human beings here and Robert Morris from 1781-1790 whose wealth came from his role as partner in a major slave-trading company and Benedict Arnold (yes, thee Benedict Arnold) from 1778-1779 who enslaved Black human beings here and General William Howe with General Henry Clinton from 1777-1778 who enslaved Black human beings here and Richard and Polly Penn from 1773-1775 who enslaved Black human beings here and actually beginning with the estate of a Philadelphia Mayor — and one of the city’s largest slaveholders — William Masters from 1768-1773. From slave mogul to slave trader to slave-owner! Because slavery permeated the President’s House, it must permeate this project.
I also must say this to those who complain that this project does not deal enough with President George Washington and that an equal balance or equality between him and slavery should exist at this site: Well, monuments, memorials, and museums on federal property dedicated to George Washington can be found everywhere in America. But where are the monuments, the memorials, and the museums on federal property that acknowledge the all-consuming horror of and the courageous resistance to and the long-overdue abolition of slavery? They are nowhere — at least not until right now, right here.
For the past two centuries, the President George Washington story has always gotten more than ninety percent of the “monument, memorial, and museum” pie with slavery getting less than ten percent. And now in 2010, those who are complaining are saying, “Let’s be fair with this project here. Let’s tell half about Washington and the presidency and half about slavery. That’s an equal balance. That’s equality,” they say. Well, to them I say, sometimes equality is not nearly enough. Sometimes, as right now and right here, equity is the only solution.
So I say to 32 year old Austin, 16 year old Christopher Sheels, 32 year old Giles, 36 year old Hercules, 26 year old Joe Richardson, 51 year old Moll, 17 year old Oney Judge/Ona Maria Judge Staines, 16 year old Paris, and 14 year old Richmond, we have begun to finally bring you equity today. We have begun to avenge you today — “avenge” not as in revenge, which is something completely different — but instead to “avenge” as it is properly defined, meaning a “deserved punishment for wrongs or oppressions” — in this case, the deserved punishment of condemnation of slavery and correction of history.
We will never forget you. And we will always avenge you.