Mount Vernon's checkered past
One woman's story exemplifies the complex history of a national monument.
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Following Bushrod's passing in 1829, his nephew, John Augustine Washington, inherited the Mount Vernon property. Also the owners of a much larger 900-acre plantation, Augustine and his wife Charlotte left most of the daily operations of Mount Vernon in the hands of the help without much direction. Soon word spread that Mount Vernon was being neglected. One traveler described the estate as "deserted, forgotten and despised." Without the resources to maintain both of his enormous properties, Augustine resorted to banning unannounced Mount Vernon visitors. Despite efforts to manage the tourists, relic seekers continued to ravage the grounds, and public opinion assailed Augustine with criticism. So he sold the place.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1859, America's first historic preservationist society bought Mount Vernon. Called the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA), they hailed from both sides of the Mason Dixon line and transformed the estate into a museum of early American life. Then came the Civil War. The MVLA maintained Mount Vernon throughout the conflict as neutral ground. Facing down debt and staffing challenges, the MVLA persevered, eventually hiring a number of African-Americans to help maintain the glory of Mount Vernon's 18th-century mythology – slavery and all. One of those hired was Sarah Johnson.
By the time of her passing in 1920, Sarah Johnson had lived at Mount Vernon for more than half a century. Her historic knowledge and domestic skills were highly valued. "Sarah could account for the historical placement of nearly every piece of furniture in the mansion," writes Casper. She took pride in her work, raised a son, married, and eventually saved enough money to buy a four-acre plot on land once owned by John Augustine Washington for $350. "She got the economics of freedom just right," writes the author.
At its core, "Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon" is a narrative of people – free and unfree, black and white – who lived and worked, fought and died there. Who was related to whom is never entirely clear, and Casper does his best to focus on the truly important history. He does not shy away from the uncomfortable racial stereotypes as the history books recorded them. For example, Casper includes a 1906 newspaper account describing Sarah Johnson, who had become an MVLA council member after living and working at Mount Vernon for 40 years, as "a colored mammy of extreme respectability."
"Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon" provides a thoroughly comprehensive, though clunky, perspective of America's first sacred shrine. As Casper concludes: "On America's revised mythic landscape, slavery and freedom are juxtaposed nowhere more starkly than at the Virginia plantation that America's founding fathers and their African American slaves shared." For all its messiness, it's a shared history worth exploring.