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Mount Vernon’s checkered past

One woman’s story exemplifies the complex history of one of America’s most beloved monuments.

By Richard Horan / February 18, 2008

When George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, 316 slaves lived at Mount Vernon. There is a general misconception that upon his death, all were freed.

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In fact, in Washington’s last will and testament, he bequeathed his slaves to his wife Martha, and upon her death he requested that they be emancipated. No doubt our heroic first president’s heart was in the right place, but what was he thinking? Might not people who’d been promised their freedom upon the death of their owner try to precipitate that event prematurely?

Although there were sincere friendships between Martha and some of the enslaved African-Americans who lived at Mount Vernon, according to Abigail Adams, Martha “did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their hands.” So, after rumors of an attempted fire, Martha freed them on New Year’s Day in 1801.

That should be the end of the story; unfortunately, George Washington did not own them all. (More than half belonged to Martha Washington’s first husband). When Martha died in 1802, the remaining “dower slaves” were divided among her four grandchildren. Some were sent to work on other estates, but many remained at Mount Vernon. In Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon, historian Scott E. Casper lays bear the unique narrative of America’s first sacred shrine, capturing the dizzying complexity of an early American community largely unrecognized and misunderstood. After all, Mount Vernon, writes Casper, is “a story not just of Washingtons but also of black people named Parker and Smith, Johnson and Ford.”

Casper’s historical review does not focus exclusively on Sarah Johnson. But even a brief sketch of her life – born into slavery at Mount Vernon to a teenage mother in 1844, a paid servant after the Civil War, and finally an owner of a tiny farm in the middle of Mount Vernon’s acreage – hints at a remarkable life.

Casper tries to piece together the loose ends (who was married to whom) and dead ends (who got sold off) to create the story of a network of people who perpetually returned to Mount Vernon simply because it was all they ever knew.

First to inherit Mount Vernon after Martha’s death was George’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, who later became a Supreme Court justice. He was also the first president of the American Colonization Society, a group that advocated for freed slaves to colonize Africa. But Bushrod had no intention of freeing his slaves on American soil and told them as much. The insubordination that ensued resulted in the selling of 54 of Bushrod’s 83 slaves “downriver.” Of his remaining slaves, some fled north, while others attempted to poison his food. Through it all, pilgrimages to the historic estate continued to arrive daily by steamboat. Any relics not nailed down – from bed knobs to branches of the surrounding trees – were pilfered.

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