Virginia, USA: The people of Mount Vernon didn’t want to do anything with the slaves

BWhen the weather is fine, the place is a purely poetic setting: the estate of George Washington, the first president of the United States, sits as if drawn on the nearby Potomac River. Everywhere are old oaks, rolling hills, flowerbeds and orchards. Groups of visitors wander along the delicate sandy walkways, and classrooms disturb their teachers.

It’s hard to believe: one of the founding fathers of the USA lived with his family in this picturesque place, in a three-story mansion with 21 colonial-style rooms – and right next door, more than 300 slaves had to do forced labor for Washington until they were exhausted. Knowledge of this historical fact has been ignored for a long time and to this day not many visitors are interested.

For example, there is a greenhouse with a huge window facing south. Washington had seen such a modern greenhouse in a Baltimore suburb and sent the plans to him. Gladiolus, tulips, and buttercups bloom outside, while inside are warm enough for bright oleanders, bananas, and even coffee plants. To the right and left, about 60 slaves lived in two cramped dwellings, men and women separated, without any privacy.

Source: © Openstreetmap Contributor, WELT infographic

You have to imagine the surreal juxtaposition, says Matt Braine: “There is a greenhouse in which George Washington experimented with tropical plants. And one wall away were enslaved people sleeping on the floor with their children.” Briney works for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns the memorial and employs approximately 400 people. This national pilgrimage site has been privately owned since 1860 and is not managed by the state National Park Service, as is the norm with nationally significant cultural attractions in the USA.

Many slaves worked for the President of the United States

Before the Covid pandemic, one million people made the annual pilgrimage to this national shrine in Virginia, 20 kilometers southwest of Washington, DC. On an area of ​​200 hectares, which corresponds to about 280 football fields, you can visit the Manor House, stables, parks and gardens, a whiskey distillery, fisheries and workshops. Only in the 1990s were simple slave dwellings restored and opened to the public.

Mount Vernon in the USA: The huts where slaves had to live have been open only to visitors since the 1990s.

Huts where slaves had to live have been open only to visitors since the 1990s

Source: Anja Steinbuch and Michael Marek

“Not only was the estate a residence, but it was also a thriving farm,” Briney explains. And this can only continue with a group of slaves. They toiled in the fields for up to 14 hours a day, collected livestock, cooked and cleaned for the householders, and had to endure severe physical punishment if they resisted.

If you take your time and walk the sandy path toward the Potomac after visiting the mansion, you’ll pass two very different burial sites. In the woods near the river is the marble tomb of the family of George Washington and his wife, Martha. The stars and stripes and the personal flag of General Washington flutter in the sunlight.

Mount Vernon in the USA: A memorial stone was not erected until 200 years after the death of George Washington to commemorate slaves who were once buried anonymously.

A memorial was not erected until 200 years after the death of George Washington to commemorate slaves who were once buried anonymously.

Credit: Rob Shenk/George Washington’s Mount Vernon

200 meters: another grave. Several hundred African Americans were buried unidentified here until 1860. The minute markings made from the branches show traces of graves on the ground. All this was grown by bushes until 1983 and was not visible to visitors. It was once the ugly of hidden slavery, and today it is a place of quiet remembrance. Monuments on the graves were not secured until 200 years after Washington’s death, and a massive sandstone monument was erected at the request of the African American community.

Guides provide information about slavery in Mount Vernon

The Founding Father of America as a Slave Owner: This is a fact that the nation and the guardians of Mount Vernon have been slow to embrace. Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Washington – Twelve of the eighteen US presidents between 1789 and 1877 were slave owners. Slavery was a system of exploitation and inequality, in which people were owned and oppressed with physical and psychological violence; A system justified by people like George Washington even though they knew slavery was morally wrong.

The restoration of a former abandoned slave cemetery was the starting point for a public reassessment. In 1993 the first “Slavery Life Tour” was presented at Mount Vernon. Today, Girl Guides like African-American Brenda Parker tell about the daily lives of slaves on Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon in the USA: Today, guides like Brenda Parker lead visitors through the property and talk about slavery

Today, guides like Brenda Parker take visitors around the property and tell stories about slavery

Source: Anja Steinbuch and Michael Marek

Washington kept accurate accounts of the crops and goods produced. Accurately record the number and capabilities of slaves in the estate; that has been bought and sold for decades. Possession of enslaved labor helped Washington maintain her way of life. It gave him time and space to devote himself to what he loved to do most: reading, writing, carrying out his agricultural ideas, and receiving guests. He was a meticulous accountant, keeping track of the rations he gave his enslaved people daily, month, and year.

Parker explains that she sees her role as giving a voice to all those who appear as silent witnesses in the historical records and tables. “Some families have been enslaved at Mount Vernon for generations without historical record finding any direct record of them.” Despite the horror and oppression caused by slavery, what did these families who lived here do? Parker knows the answer: “They tried to live a normal life between chaos and arbitrariness.”

Blow among the remains of George Washington

The public’s interest in historical injustice doesn’t seem to have been that great, because only about a tenth of a visitor books the “People’s Slave on Mount Vernon” tour. Brenda Parker explains that historical places like this are often visited by people who have little or no basic knowledge.

George Washington's bedroom on Mount Vernon, where he died on December 14, 1799

George Washington’s bedroom on Mount Vernon, where he died on December 14, 1799

Source: The Washington Post via Getty Images / The Washington Post

Some visitors also believed that Washington was being vilified by references to its slave-owning past. Washington relied on forced labor from the hour he awoke in the morning on his four-poster bed to the moment he slept at night.

George Washington’s part is still successful on the tours today. The glorified general of the Revolutionary War, co-author of the Constitution and the first president of the United States – he had bad teeth. He lost the first at age 24, possibly as a result of an illness.

Mount Vernon: George Washington's Teeth Wow Visitors

George Washington’s teeth fascinate visitors

Source: Anja Steinbuch and Michael Marek

At the time, good teeth were a prerequisite for rhetorical influence. So dentures were needed. George Washington commissioned six. In addition to ivory, horse, and bovine teeth, real human teeth served as raw material. Their suppliers were not only the deceased, but his slaves as well, as detailed home books in Washington show.

Additional information: Without a tour but with an audio guide: USD 28 per adult. Guided tours cost between $2 and $60 extra, depending on the theme. Opening hours: daily 9am-5pm, winter 4pm (

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