This past week I was fortunate enough to participate in the Gilder Lehrman Institute (GLI) “Era of George Washington” summer teacher seminar. The GLI very generously fully funds around thirty of these seminars all across the country (with one in Edinburgh!) every summer. At each one, about two dozen k-12 teachers, k-12 librarians, park service rangers, etc. get together with a senior scholar and a GLI master teacher to discuss a particular historical topic and learn how to better teach that topic.
Gordon Wood, Alva O. Way University Professor emeritus at Brown University, led the “Era of George Washington” seminar along with Gloria Sesso, GLI master teacher. Perhaps the best part of the seminar was its location: Mount Vernon. Not only did we get to do a number of private tours that went well beyond what a typical visitor might see, but we also had free run of the grounds after hours. You really cannot beat enjoying a sunset from George Washington’s back porch—simply magnificent.
I am going to write at least one more post about Mount Vernon in the near future, but I wanted to start off with a post about the cemetery for the plantation’s enslaved population. Located not too far from Washington’s final tomb, the cemetery had three different posted markers, and, in conjunction, the three demonstrate changing interpretations of slavery.
The first marker, placed in 1929, said it was in memory of “the many faithful colored servants” of the Washingtons. It is inappropriate to criticize the marker for using the word “colored” to describe the slaves of African descent, because that was considered an appropriate term at the time—see, for example, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909).
What is problematic, however, is calling the enslaved workers “faithful.” These individuals typically resisted their enslavement in a variety of ways, and many tried to escape (some were successful, some not—the most noteworthy failed attempts to escape George Washington were of seven men and women who were re-enslaved after the Revolutionary War when the British returned them to Mount Vernon; seventeen had run away to the British earlier in the war). But, perhaps most insidiously, the marker plays into the trope of the benevolent slave master who presumably was a sort of father figure to the enslaved. They, in turn, loved and respected the master and were “faithful” for the master’s kind treatment. The “mammy” stereotype, as an example, well fits within this particular interpretation.
But, unsurprisingly, it’s a bad interpretation. Calling the enslaved “faithful” to the Washingtons does damage to their history, perspective, and historical agency. And it seems particularly distasteful at a cemetery.
Times change, though, and there are other markers there that do a better job. I particularly want to stress how impressed I am that the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA; it owns Mount Vernon) has not removed the 1929 marker. It would be very easy to try and cover up an unpleasant past, but the MVLA is respectful of the past and leaves the 1929 marker to help educate people about why past interpretations have been eschewed for modern ones. Clearly, the MVLA has made significant strides over the course of nearly a century. Kudos to the organization.
Students from nearby Howard University, an historically black university, helped the MVLA establish the second marker in 1983 after a minor kerfuffle in the Washington Post that the original marker had become overgrown and forgotten. Chastised and embarrassed, the MVLA has had a permanent marker at the site since then. The 1983 marker is beautiful and moving, but it too has language that can be unpacked.
The 1983 marker has shifted from calling the enslaved “colored” to instead calling them “Afro Americans.” More importantly, any sort of language about them being “faithful” was excised, as were all references to their masters at all. The memorial is about the enslaved peoples of Mount Vernon, and the new marker appropriately focuses exclusively on them. The actual structure of the marker rests upon a three tiered dais, with each level representing one of "faith," "hope," and "love." Love, being the greatest of these, is at the top.
Interestingly, however, the enslaved workers are called “slaves.” While this was considered appropriate language in the past (even likely five years ago), in recent years language that emphasizes the humanity of enslaved peoples has become preferred. A shift from calling them “slaves” to calling them “enslaved people” focuses first on their personhood while emphasizing that enslavement was a violence done to the enslaved.
The current-day sign explaining the archaeological dig in the cemetery thus uses this language and also mentions William Lee by name. Lee, sometimes called Billy Lee (he preferred “William”), served as Washington’s valet for many years, including during the entire Revolutionary War. Mentioning Lee by name further helps recover the past of enslaved peoples and also attempts to keep their humanity as in tact as possible. The newest sign thus represents an important shift, as does the archaeological effort to locate every grave within the cemetery.
You can see in the final photo a small section of the dig. I added a red line to highlight the gravesite just above it. The grave is a slightly darker yellow than the surrounding soil because a deep grave would stir up darker yellow Virginia clay. Even well over a century later, this difference can be seen just a few inches below the surface. The Mount Vernon archaeological team is doing a laudable job to help uncover and preserve the history of enslaved individuals on the property.
In all, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association should be commended for shifting both their language and attitudes in ways that better respect the lives of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population. And the evolution of graveyard markers helps demonstrate that shift, reminding us that our understandings of the past can sometimes tell us more about ourselves than they do past peoples.