Winning the Game of History: Doug Heller, USHistory and the Truth at Sixth and Market Streets

The Intersection of Sixth and Market Streets, Looking East, 1902.

Until Doug Heller stepped forward about a decade ago, the real meaning of Sixth and Market Streets had been lost to historical background noise. As webmaster of at the Independence Hall Association, a unique perch for building online content and public understanding, Heller learned the story of The President’s House in Philadelphia, which stood at Sixth and Market, and created a dedicated page. Then, over the next decade in a thousand updates, Heller expanded the page into an authoritative, exhaustive encyclopedic account.

Heller rewrote the rules of play and literally changed history, online and on the street.

He restored to public memory the long-lost President’s house, where George Washington and John Adams conducted their presidencies in the 1790s during the nation’s infancy.  He saved from oblivion the stories of Washington’s servants and slaves who worked and toiled in a city that history had wrongly assured us was free of slavery. And once he moved the truth from the abyss of history into the foreground of American consciousness, Heller shed light on the efforts to represent this narrative in brick and mortar. If ever there was a case of the internet bending the arc of the American historical narrative, this was it.

Of course, Heller didn’t do it alone, and that’s the whole point. First came Ed Lawler’s scholarly articles, The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark. Then came the advocacy of a group calling itself the ad hoc historians, the debate over the facts with Independence National Historical Park, the introduction of ATAC (Avenge the Ancestors Coalition), and the key role of journalists producing news stories.  Heller posted hundreds upon hundreds of articles, before and after Stephan Salisbury and Inga Saffron’s pivotal, page one account in The Philadelphia Inquirer of Sunday March 24, 2002: Echoes of slavery at Liberty Bell site. What followed, from Boston to Atlanta, Chicago to Los Angeles, NPR to The International Herald Tribune assured that the truth, with all its contradictions and complexities, had finally been embraced.

Heller augmented the site with Lawler’s biographies of Enslaved persons of African Descent, with documentation of the work of INHP archeologists, with anything that might help build the ephemeral into reality.  In his role, from his perch, Heller understood that all of this would add up to something greater, much greater, than their sum of its moving parts. It took the better part of a decade, but Sixth and Market Streets is now reinterpreted, forever reconnected to its deep and complicated past.

Douglas J. Heller died last week. He is remembered and celebrated—see his obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer and a post at The New York Times’s Wordplay blog. Doug Heller, the ultimate puzzle master, took on the real-life puzzle of transformation on the street—and won.

He showed us how to play. Now it’s our move.