Slavery at Mount Vernon

slave cabin

The photograph depicts a replica of a slave cabin in Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. It is based on an early 20th-century photograph as the original cabin no longer exists.

After about two decades, on President’s Day (February 17), I found myself in front of the replica of the slave cabin on the grounds of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. This replica was completed in 2007, located at the Pioneer Farm. This slave cabin shares the story of the enslaved communities on the outlying farms of Mount Vernon. In honor of President’s Day;the people who run things now open the main gate of the estate and waive the $20 entrance fee. For that reason alone, thousands throng to Mount Vernon with families, friends, and yes, lots of children to witness history. This is once a year chance to see history up close for free.

It was an unusually warm day for mid-February, and without any particular plans for that afternoon, we thought of visiting Mount Vernon once again might be a good idea to see it just for ourselves. Way back,during our first visit, we took our daughter in late August right before she was about to start 6th grade. At the time, taking a guided tour, I think we saw Mount Vernon through her eyes, mostly eager to witness the positive parts of George Washington’s presidency. I do not recall slavery being discussed intensely when we were touring the main house where Washington lived with his family. At the time, we were okay with it as perhaps we did not want her to have a bad impression on America’s first president by exposing the ugly details of slavery. At the end of the tour, as parents, we possibly had shielded her from thinking that the first US president George Washington owned slaves. That she had to learn subsequently and in detail on her own,like every other American child,from the pages of social studies and American history books. One thing that I still vividly recall is at that time the tickets were only $8 per person. This time another noteworthy difference was that the guards at the gate did peek inside the purses and backpacks of the visitors for security reasons.

Next to the entrance of Mount Vernon,there lies an enormous and glitzy Visitor Center. The walls of the center paint a glorified picture of George Washington’s legacy. The lithographs and oil paintings depict a General in full uniform having an intense conversation while inspecting his troops at Valley Forge. During the Revolutionary War, for six months in the winter, Washington’s army hunkered down there “facing hunger, disease and despair” as food supply was in severe shortage. The walls adorn many other pictures of the mansion during different seasons along the beautiful Potomac River. The walls also display how other US presidents, including John F Kennedy had afterwards used Mount Vernon in entertaining other heads of states. But behind the life size black and white photos of the Kennedys with Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan and his daughter Begum Nasim Aurangzeb looking dignified,or Queen Elizabeth’s eyes gleaming with delight to be present atMount Vernon –hidden is the painful and disgraceful history of slavery. Behind artifacts and memorabilia that are preserved or duplicated from Washington’s time, buried are the untold stories of keeping human beings in bondage just because they were powerless and had nowhere else to go. One can almost feel the deep sighs of the enslaved people between the walls. At the time, slavery was a way of life, and most slave-owners including Washington saw nothing wrong in that.

I think it was a good thing that I did go for a second time to assess things for myself. With free entrance, the crowd last Monday was huge, and to tour the house, people were standing in very long lines. We were told in order to enter the mansion line, we will have to wait for almost two hours. Therefore, we decided since the weather was pleasant, we should make the best of it and instead walk the grounds and see for ourselves what we make of it.What I came away with is a heavy heart about America’s past and its shameful history. My realization about how white America had kept the African Americans in bondage is something right out of the pages of a horror movie.

The above picture of the replica of a slave cabin is a glaring example of how the black slaves were treated. They had to live in a cage size cabin, eating a very basic diet while General George Washington lived in the mansion being waited hand and foot by them. Washington sat at the head of a big table in an immaculate dining room with a perfectly set table, and ate food that was prepared by the slaves for hours. The finely starched and ironed white tablecloths and napkins that were washed by the slave women or men in the washing house was an eighteen-hour long job. I did not need a tour guide this time to explain everything to a naïve visitor. History of slavery was breathing in every corner of the property. Even the Potomac River gently flowing looked sad that afternoon as it had to witness that awful history as well.

Slaves in Mount Vernon


The silhouettes above are meant to represent people in bondage at Washington’s estate who served him and his wife Martha. In 1799, Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington, also housed 317 enslaved men, women and children to maintain his house and plantations. They supported George and Martha Washington’s elite lifestyle. There were five plantations that Washington owned. Most of the enslaved people worked on the four outlying farms as agricultural laborers. About one quarter of them worked in the mansion as skilled laborers such as blacksmiths, carpenters, spinners, and seamstress. At the property, most slaves who worked the fields lived in a one room log structure (pictured at the top) with a wooden chimney. Other enslaved house servants (they had slightly higher status) lived in larger barracks style quarters with their families. Artisans, craftsmen, shoe-makers and others who took care of the stables and grounds also lived in the barracks. Enslaved families were often separated and scattered across different farms due to their work type.

Clothing was given to them to identify between house servants and field workers. Some of Martha Washington’s favorite ones (her seamstress and personal maid) wore her hand me downs. Each enslaved family lived on their weekly ration which consisted of corn meal and salted fish. Such food had zero nutrition value, and therefore, sometimes they kept their own vegetable gardens and raised poultry. Though slavery was considered part of the natural order, the slaves maintained their own customs that gave them a sense of community and that in a way affirmed that they belonged to the human race even when the world around them, including the first president of the United States had denied it. Until the very end, Washington had refused to grant them the freedom to live the way they wanted and deserved to live.

History has it that at the end of his life, Washington showed some kind of remorse for having enslaved people. His anti-slavery sentiments were discovered after his death in his will. In that he had left instructions that his slaves are to be freed after the death of Martha. This only applied to few of his personal slaves, not everyone who remained in the estate doing other jobs.

slave baracks

Barrack style quarters for the slaves at Mount Vernon

“Those owned by Custis estate were inherited by Martha Washington’s grandchildren after her death. Many Washington and Custis slaves had married and formed families together. For them separation from loved ones tainted celebrations of newfound freedom.”

Slave Memorial

In 1929, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association placed a marker stating the location of the slave cemetery. It is believed to be the first commemoration of its kind in a significant historic site such as Mount Vernon. Despite this belated recognition, the burial ground lay unattended for decades. Even in death, they remained anonymous without any headstones marking their graves. Consequently, a group of citizens began a concerted effort to give more recognition to the enslaved people who were buried there. In 1983, a new memorial designed by the architecture students of Howard University in Washington DC was dedicated to those individuals who lived and toiled in bondage at Mount Vernon. The inscription read: IN MEMORY OF THE AFRO AMERICANS WHO SERVED AS SLAVES AT MOUNT VERNON THIS MONUMENT MARKING THEIR BURIAL GROUND

On our way out, we stopped by at the gift shop selling many duplicates and 3D images, wooden structures, prints and lithographs from George Washington’s time. To remember my second visit, only memento I could make myself buy is a $4 coaster where Mount Vernon’s main house was lightly painted. Upon coming home, I could not bring myself to display the trinket on my kitchen table. I was afraid every morning while drinking tea sitting at the table;it will make me contemplate aboutthe history of slavery. As it is,my heart often feels heavy thinking about the very complex and agonizing history of enslavement in the United States.

Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA




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