Hercules’ Greatest Feat

The craft (or art?) of becoming Presidential was invented Philadelphia. But who actually set the tone in the first President’s House? That would be Philadelphia’s most prominent enslaved African, George and Martha’s Hercules.

One of nine enslaved Africans owned by George and Martha Washington, Hercules headed up the kitchen at the Presidential Mansion at 6th and Market – located, ironically, steps from today’s Liberty Bell Center.

Because of his immense talent at the culinary arts and his skills in managing eight assistants, Hercules was allowed to sell the leftovers from the Washingtons’ table and earned enough to augment his wardrobe. Hercules cut quite a figure on the red-brick sidewalks.

Hercules was important, but he was not free. And although Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery assured he could become free, he remained enslaved. As the law’s six month deadline approached, the Washingtons’ worked the loophole by taking their slaves out of state before the deadline passed. This earned everyone another six months of legalized servitude – even in the City of Brotherly Love.

So, for all the feasts Hercules pulled out of the fire, no doubt the greatest was his own first taste of freedom. In March 1797, on the eve of the Washington’s departure for Mount Vernon, Hercules departed his basement kitchen for the last time. This time, Hercules was a free man.

More than 210 years later, we’re slowly learning a thing or two about Hercules. Today, days before Washington’s birthday, the Kitchen Sisters included his story in a feature on National Public Radio.

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