On Monday, the country celebrates George Washington’s birthday, our first president. If bodies didn’t decay, he would be 289 years old today. But you might ask, why write about Washington for a blog during Black History Month? Today, we’ll use his birthday to commemorate a different group of people who lived at his Mount Vernon estate: the men and women he enslaved.
At the time of his death, 317 enslaved men and women lived at Mount Vernon. While he did put it in his will to free the people he owned upon his death, this did not mean those 317 were emancipated when he left this life. More than half of those slaves, under his wife’s estate, remained in bondage.
Washington is a complicated person. He was an enslaver. He even wrote down that physical force (beating and whipping) was perfectly acceptable if a slave needed to be prodded to work harder. Weirdly, he also wrote in a 1786 letter to Robert Morris, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to a see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].” Whatever his internal will actually was in reference to this statement, his actions don’t help him.
When President George Washington resided in Philadelphia, he brought some of the people he enslaved with him. One of those, Ona Judge, was Martha’s maid and seamstress. In the years of living among the free black population in Philadelphia, she was inspired to become free, and so as the Washington’s packed to go home to Mount Vernon for the summer in 1796, she packed for her escape. Eventually fleeing to New Hampshire, Washington pursued her for 3 years, offering rewards for her capture and even sending someone to New Hampshire to “convince her” to come back. She didn’t. She remained a fugitive for the rest of her life. Against the wishes of her enslaver, Washington, she chose freedom.
Other than Judge’s story, which is well documented in Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, many of the lives of the enslaved at Mount Vernon are not well known. However, if you have the chance to visit Mount Vernon today, you will see a strong effort by the estate to highlight the lives of the enslaved. There are tours dedicated to their hardships, there are replicas of their bleak slave quarters, and most moving, archeologists are currently excavating the enslaved community’s cemetery to properly document graves and pay appropriate homage to those who lived and died on Washington’s plantation.
Three years ago when I visited, my students and I walked the long path down the hill from the Washington mansion to the slave cemetery. We sat, read some of the markers, and took it in. Then, a reenactor, dressed in 18th century clothing, began playing the ute. After playing some songs that were clearly from Washington’s era, he asked the crowd to join in singing the next song with him, if they knew it.
He began to play Amazing Grace. Of course, the author of the hymn, John Newton, wrote it after becoming a Christian and repenting of his involvement in the slave trade. There couldn’t have been a more perfect song. It brought me to tears.
For centuries, the graves of the enslaved at the Mount Vernon estate have largely been silent. Moments like that gave them a voice.