George Washington's Mount Vernon Highlights More Stories Of Enslaved People The legacy of American landmarks are being taken to task for traditionally glorifying the country's white Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners.
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George Washington's Mount Vernon Highlights More Stories Of Enslaved People

George Washington's Mount Vernon Highlights More Stories Of Enslaved People

Brenda Parker is the head of African American Interpretation at Mount Vernon. Part of her job includes donning slave clothing and portraying Caroline Branham, a former housemaid. Here she stands in her favorite spot, the slave cemetery. Parker says she comes here to seek solace and sometimes to sing to the ancestors. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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America's history is being taken to task. People are calling for a reckoning of the violent, racist past that has permeated every facet of society. The legacy of landmarks is being scrutinized for traditionally glorifying the country's white Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners and fought to protect the institution of slavery.

So conversations about slavery at Mount Vernon and other historic sites will likely get more uncomfortable as systemic racism and white supremacy in America are being challenged once again. This time with much more fervor.

Brenda Parker's job is to help shape the narrative of the enslaved people at Mount Vernon. Parker, the head of African American interpretation, says the plantation is now focused as much on the lives of the enslaved people as it is on the life of George Washington.

"Because everything, everything was Washington-centric," she says, rapidly pounding her fist into her hand to hammer home her point. "I get it. We're on his property. But if it weren't for us, he would not have had that property."

Brenda Parker interacts with visitors at Mount Vernon as Caroline Branham, one of the enslaved people owned by George Washington. She stays "in character" offering personal observations of what life was like for enslaved peoples at that time. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Parker, who's wearing a mask because of the pandemic, doesn't mince words. "Us" is personal to her. As a Black woman, Parker feels a deep, emotional connection to Caroline Branham, the interpretive character she portrays as part of her job. Sometimes, Parker has a hard time separating herself from Branham, a former housemaid. But she slips in and out of character seamlessly.

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"You know like if your grandmother gave to you a dog, and that dog did have a litter of puppies. It would be your choice to keep one, sell one, and give one away as a gift. That's how we're thought about," says Parker, as Branham, recalling how she explains to children the way in which enslaved families were torn apart.

Parker switches out of character and continues as herself. "Understandable enough for a child and the adult starts to get a little uncomfortable. But that's fine and that's good because this is uncomfortable."

The bricks that were used to build the slave quarters at Mount Vernon were forged by the enslaved people of the plantation. Some of them left fingerprints in the clay. Parker poses with her fingers in the hardened indentations of her favorite brick — a sort of spiritual handshake. "This was [our] ancestors work. They left us tangible evidence of their existence here. And that's lasting," she says. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Stories Of The Enslaved People

What passes as history at Mount Vernon has changed over the years. It's now less about extolling George Washington's virtues and more about how bondage took its toll on those who built and cared for the property. The exhibit Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon, does just that.

"We thought that we could tell a story here that was not about slavery as an institution, but the experiences of real people at a particular place. That you could effectively follow in their footsteps," says Susan Schoelwer, executive director of historic preservation and collections at Mount Vernon.

The first thing you'll see when visiting the exhibit is a massive glass entrance emblazoned with the names of hundreds of people formerly enslaved at Mount Vernon. Visible directly through the inscribed glass is a bust of America's first president.

"You see Washington through the names of this community that surrounded him. And, arguably, what Washington accomplished relied upon what they did on an everyday basis," Schoelwer says.

The entrance to Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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The bust of George Washington as seen through the names of the enslaved people that adorn the glass entrance to the Lives Bound Together exhibit. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

The exhibit features reimagined silhouettes of what formerly enslaved people might have looked like during their time at Mount Vernon. Very few images of the actual enslaved people exist. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Susan Schoelwer, executive director of historic preservation and collections at Mount Vernon, points to a map that shows where the 317 enslaved men, women, and children ended up after Washington's death in 1799. Many of them were freed. But others, called dowry slaves because they had belonged to Martha Washington's first husband, were sent to work for family members. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Names like Oney "Ona" Judge, whose escape from the plantation became something of a legend among the enslaved population. Judge was Martha Washington's personal maid and was well-known by the Washington's friends. She escaped from Mount Vernon and made her way to New Hampshire where slavery was illegal. A friend of the Washingtons saw Judge on the streets of Portsmouth and sent word to Mount Vernon. This began a long negotiation process between Judge and her former master.

"Washington sent a customs agent to negotiate with Judge saying the Washington's want you back," Anette Ahrens, interpretive supervisor and guide of the Enslaved Peoples tour, told a recent group of visitors. "Surprisingly, Ona said 'Maybe. If he guarantees my freedom after his death.' Washington's response to that was running away showed disloyalty and he wasn't going to reward disloyalty."

A year had passed as negotiations faltered. Washington decided to send his nephew to kidnap Judge. The nephew attended a dinner at the governor's mansion in New Hampshire and told everyone what he was there to do.

"We don't know if it was a guest at the table or one of the free Black servants serving dinner, but someone got word to Ona. So, she laid low," Ahrens tells the group.

Judge's story is the subject of a 2017 biography titled Never Caught: The Washington's Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

Much of the Lives Bound Together exhibit is now available online as in-person visits to Mount Vernon are down significantly due to the pandemic.

This marker in the slave cemetery was placed in dedication by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1929. Notice the outdated language describing the enslaved people. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Uncovering Those Lost To History

But nothing you can look at on your screen is going to give you the same feeling as standing where the enslaved people once lived, worked and are now buried. At the south end of the property, shrouded by tall trees is the slave cemetery.

"It is my absolute favorite spot," says Brenda Parker. She inhales deep as if she's breathing in the lingering spirit of these long-lost souls. "I feel at peace here, a solace here as well as a connection to the past. And then every once in a while a breeze might blow through and it's as if God or the ancestors are answering a question or a prayer that I had."

Parker is sometimes even moved to sing to those ancestors.

Right along the shaded cobblestone path leading into the cemetery, just inches from it, in fact, are two rectangular pieces of earth marked with string. They are the graves of formerly enslaved people discovered by ongoing archaeological work. Archaeologists have been working here for about seven years. Mount Vernon curators say they don't know exactly how many people are buried here, but they say about 80 graves have been uncovered so far.

This cemetery is thought to be the final resting place of William "Billy" Lee, George Washington's personal valet, who fought alongside the general during the Revolutionary War. Their relationship was special and is cited as a reason why Washington began to abhor the institution of slavery. Lee was one of the many slaves freed upon Washington's death in 1799. Lee remained at Mount Vernon until his death in 1828.

Lee's story, along with those of Ona Judge, Caroline Branham and many others, put a human touch to one of the most horrific periods in American history. Their lives can help visitors to Mount Vernon gain a more nuanced understanding of how we got to this current moment of racial reckoning, which is needed to move forward.

Brenda Parker playfully staring out at the Potomac River on the east front of the mansion house at Mount Vernon. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Correction Aug. 6, 2020

An earlier version of this story said the Lives Bound Together exhibit opened in 2020. The exhibit opened in 2015.

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