Mount Vernon's checkered past

One woman's story exemplifies the complex history of a national monument.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Richard Horan is the author of two novels, 'Life in the Rainbow' and 'Goose Music.' He teaches composition at the State University of New York.

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