Written by Mayra Herrera de Olivares
Community Volunteer Ambassador at Independence National Historical Park
This has been the longest winter in a long time. It was the first year I wasn’t able to spend the holidays with my family, and the first time I really saw snow fall. I noticed that winter had started when all the leaves were gone from the trees and I felt my fingers freeze, but I didn’t anticipate how cold it would get when exploring outside.
During the cold months, I focused on learning about the sites and stories in the park. I had the opportunity to participate in several interpretive trainings, tours, and programs held at the park. My favorite presentation was by Adrian Miller, author of a new book entitled “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet. ” In the presentation Miller discussed various African-American people which have served presidents through the culinary trade. Miller shed light on George Washington’s enslaved cook, Hercules, whom Washington brought to Philadelphia when the city became the nation’s capital in the 1790’s. Hercules was “at the period of the first presidency, as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States,” George Washington Parke Custis wrote. Miller used journals written by Custis, George Washington’s adopted grandson, as a primary source in his research.
Although Pennsylvania’s 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery granted enslaved people their freedom after six months of residing in the state, President Washington made sure to take Hercules and other enslaved workers out of the state just as they were reaching six months. By continuously restarting the clock for each enslaved person’s residence in Philadelphia, he ensured that the Pennsylvania couldn’t grant freedom for any of his slaves. Upon returning to Mount Vernon after the end of Washington’s presidency, Hercules was moved out of the kitchen to perform manual labor. He escaped to freedom in 1797.
There were also opportunities to tour off-site locations around the park, and my favorite was Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by Richard Allen in 1794. I loved visiting the church and its museum because I learned more about the great work Allen did for Philadelphia’s black community, like nursing the sick and dying during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793.
(for more information on “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet,” check this article written by Adrian Miller https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-man-who-fed-the-first-president-and-hungered-for-freedom/2017/02/24/7897d572-f475-11e6-b9c9-e83fce42fb61_story.html?utm_term=.f4014ff26482)
(for more information on Mother Bethel AME Church visit https://www.motherbethel.org/content.php?cid=112)
One of my main duties at INDE is to collect the VIP hours for several divisions. During the winter, INDE has a collective of about 75 active VIP’s, ranging from Volunteer Rangers, Archeology Aids, Archive Aids, and Gardeners. Recruiting volunteers is also one of my assignments, as well as reviewing potential candidates. After overseeing 18 potential candidate applications, I assisted in recruiting ten new Volunteer Rangers, an Administrative Aid, and an Archive Aid.
Several incoming Volunteer Rangers will be working at the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (THKO), which is managed by INDE. The rest will be weekend Volunteer Rangers at several sites throughout the park, including the Liberty Bell Center,
Independence Visitor Center, Benjamin Franklin Museum, Second Bank of the United States, Congress Hall, Old City Hall, and Independence Hall. Several of our sites have been closed altogether due to the hiring freeze, which has made it harder to hire seasonal staff. We hope to train our newly-recruited volunteers to staff sites like THKO in order to keep them open during the summer—or even longer. The new volunteers were
trained on the history and operations of the park on March 11.
Another one of my tasks includes ensuring that volunteers who reach personal milestones receive recognition items. This also included filling out forms to distribute Centennial Volunteer Coins during the 2016 Centennial Celebration. 24 INDE VIP’s reached over 201.6 hours of service in 2016, and they all received Centennial Volunteer Coins. I always made sure volunteer milestones were recognized on Clio, the VIP Newsletter (newsletter for volunteers with contribution from park staff, volunteers, and interns).
In early February, our Superintendent and our Chief of Interpretation requested that several classrooms, offices, and archaeology labs to be relocated to different sites around the park. Among those was the office I shared with my supervisor. That was fine with was because our new location is an upgrade! My new view is that of Franklin Court, where Benjamin Franklin’s house once stood. (You know, that guy on
the $100 bill and one of the Founding Fathers of
the US!) Not only did we move all the stuff in our office, we also moved two classrooms and the volunteer storage room. It was quite a busy time!
The park’s 44th Annual Meeting and Volunteer Appreciation event will also be taking place in late April, in partnership with the Friends of Independence. An actor will portray Alexander Hamilton and discuss important events in his life. But what I’m looking forward to most is the springtime in Philadelphia. I am looking forward to the weather warming up, and seeing leaves take their place back upon the branches of those bare trees. Currently, I am still contributing photographs to INDE Instagram account, and I can’t wait to take pictures of the park with blue skies and a blooming landscape.