Sunday, February 24, 2008

Slavery at Mount Vernon

The Washington Post has a review of a book about Mount Vernon that looks immensely interesting.
While innumerable books have been written in recent years about the Founding Fathers, it's refreshing to read one in which slaves play a central part. Washington may have helped create our republic, but slaves built and upheld its economic infrastructure. In Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon, Casper reminds us that they were founders, too.

Anyone who visits Mount Vernon invariably learns that America's first president stipulated in his will that all his slaves should be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha, who outlived him by three years. But visitors may not realize that Washington's descendants -- including his great-grandnephew, Confederate army officer John Augustine Washington III -- continued to keep other slaves on the estate for decades.

After John Augustine Washington was publicly scorned for neglecting Mount Vernon in the 1850s, he sold the land and buildings to a group of women that became the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. Although the Ladies Association raised the money to restore Washington's home, it was the labor of African Americans that maintained the property for many more years.

Casper builds his narrative largely around Sarah Johnson, who was born a slave at Mount Vernon in 1844 to a teenage mother and was trained as a domestic servant. After emancipation, she was employed by the Ladies Association as a cook and maid, keeping the estate ready for its daily visitors. She "drew upon lessons from slavery days," Casper writes, and "played a featured role in the Mount Vernon that visitors saw, as she courteously sold them milk for five cents a glass."

On Sarah Johnson's death in 1920, the flags at Mount Vernon flew at half mast. The superintendent who ordered this gesture "meant no statement about racial equality," Casper notes. "In his words, the flag commemorated a 'faithful ex-servant of M.V.,' a woman who had earned respect by knowing her place." But during her lifetime, she went from slave to landowner and even took on some managerial duties at Mount Vernon.