By Sudie Hofmann
On a beautiful October day I stood in line to purchase a $17 ticket to enter George and Martha Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon in Virginia, joining the more than 1 million annual visitors, many of whom are schoolchildren. As I looked at the large sign on the wall near the ticket booth, detailing the different tours available, I saw a specialty tour—“All the President’s Pups”—and a special Washington dinner tour. I inquired at the information desk in the Ford Orientation Center about the “slavery tour” I’d heard about and I was provided with a daily schedule that indicated the tour began at 2 p.m. I asked if there was any information in the center about slavery that I could read before entering the “mansion house.” The answer was no.
At the time of George Washington’s death, the Washingtons enslaved 318 people of African descent at Mount Vernon, according to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. But you would not know it from the main tour, nor from the brochure. In fact, most visitors, including schoolchildren, can spend hours admiring the Mount Vernon mansion, fine furniture, and manicured lawns without considering that it was all paid for with forced labor.
The introductory brochure highlights several perspectives: George Washington was the ultimate Southern gentleman; he was a state-of-the-art farmer; both Martha and George enjoyed entertaining; life at Mount Vernon provided an idyllic lifestyle, from the grounds and gardens to the mansion house and outbuildings, to the unimaginable comforts of the time. Slavery is mentioned, but only in one section of the brochure, which directs visitors to the Slave Memorial and Burial Ground.
George Washington is one of the most celebrated war heroes in U.S. history and served as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. He was also a wealthy land- and slave-owning colonist. His commitment to independence was perhaps motivated more by the opportunities to become even wealthier under independence than an interest in introducing a new concept of democracy to the world. Washington had a lifetime obsession with money, keeping meticulous records of everything he owned, including people.
Washington acquired thousands of acres of Ottawa land along the Ohio River illegally from the British as a reward for helping the British in the French and Indian War. He bought shares in the Mississippi Company, a land speculation concern, which stole 2.5 million acres of land from Native people. The great Ottawa leader Pontiac entered into an agreement with the king of England that stated no further encroachment of white settlers would take place west of the Alleghenies. Washington ignored this proclamation after the War of Independence and organized brutal campaigns against the Ottawa in his quest for more land.
George Washington purchased people directly from the holds of slave ships. He preferred them to be “strait Limb’d & in every respect strong and likely, with good Teeth & good countenances,” not exceeding 16 years of age if female. Washington wanted genetically healthy girls for reproduction purposes.
While serving as president of the United States, Washington faced a legal problem with the people he enslaved. The capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1791 and the enslaved people who accompanied him to Pennsylvania would be given their freedom if they resided in the state for more than six months. George and Martha Washington kept careful records and rotated enslaved people back and forth to Mount Vernon to avoid being required to free any of them.
Entering the mansion house on the docent-directed tour, visitors were told that the Washingtons loved to entertain. During the first part of the tour, the docent described the food served on elegant china, the dancing that took place and where the men would retire to discuss politics. The docent then escorted visitors through parlors and living rooms where the Washingtons carried out family life and on to the bedrooms on the upper floors where they and their frequent guests slept.
Our tour concluded with George’s study and library and then the docent encouraged us to visit the outbuildings where dairy was processed, fabric was woven, alcohol was distilled, blacksmithing was done, and shoes were made. I use the passive voice here intentionally, because the docent failed to mention the people who actually did this work. When he paused to ask for questions, I asked why there was no mention of the more than 300 people held in bondage at Mount Vernon to make this lifestyle possible. He said, “Oh we make no secret of that. You can visit the slave quarters and find out more about the slaves.” I asked why the tour guides did not mention who performed all the labor when describing the daily activities of the Washingtons. He again directed me to the slave tour and quarters.
A delightful and energetic guide met our group at the Mansion Circle for a 15-minute overview of slavery. The emphasis in this tour, and prevalent throughout the estate, was that the Washingtons were in some ways providing vocational education to the people they enslaved. Returning to the prime motivation for slavery as a profit-making venture, one needs to be cognizant that George and Martha were the ones who reaped the benefits from training enslaved people in certain trades. The profit certainly did not go, in any part, to people held in bondage at Mount Vernon.
Another theme within this tour and the signage throughout the estate was that this was a community of people willingly working toward a common goal, in an almost “whistle while you work” fashion. The astounding inequality was largely ignored. The tour’s narration instead focused on the beauty of the land, the panoramic view over the Potomac, and the warm breezes. The signage and tour create an image of an estate where everyone was happy.
The guide told tourists that the slaves engaged in trickery with the estate managers when they sang songs in their native languages to warn others that a manager was near. The guide said the slaves would sleep and relax in the shade when no one was around and then the songs would alert them to get up and pretend to be working. He also said, “Slaves could be clever. A new ax could be given to them in the morning and they would make sure to break it by the afternoon. They knew how to get back at plantation owners.” He did acknowledge that there was no “incentive to work” and that being “lazy was OK.” Rather than educating our group about resistance and the need for it, he characterized the men and women as shiftless and conniving.
The guide proceeded to cover the innovative agricultural techniques used on the farm and the high standards Washington demanded. A plaque at the slave quarters states, “The sun never caught George Washington in bed and he was unwilling it should find any of his people sleeping.” At the conclusion of the tour on the front lawn overlooking the Potomac, the guide summarized his message about slavery: “Anyone from the 21st century criticizing someone from the 18th century is being sanctimonious, righteous, and unfair.”
He ignored the fact that during “Washington’s time,” abolitionist groups visited Mount Vernon bearing books and petitions about emancipation, as well as the establishment of manumission societies, humanitarian efforts, writers, and Quaker groups, working to stop the practice of slavery. One needn’t rely on 21st-century critics of slavery; they existed in the 18th century, too.
I walked down a path to the slave memorial and saw a sign asking for “quiet.” I quickly saw that I had entered the area of the Washington family mausoleum. White marble tombs hold Martha and George’s remains. A small crowd of people stood, and listened to the docent’s presentation on George’s family ancestry. There was an aura of awe and respect.
I turned and completed my short walk to the slave cemetery. There was no similar sign that asked for quiet or by extension, respect. Only two other people stood in the area reading the marker designed by Howard University architectural students in 1983. The sign reads “In memory of the Afro Americans who served as slaves at Mount Vernon.” Another grave marker placed in 1929 states “In memory of the many faithful colored servants of the Washington family.” (Italics are my emphasis.)
One has to pause and wonder how the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association can ethically continue to provide these tours at the estate and mansion house and omit mention of any honest representation of slavery and the contemporary consequences of this institution. They perpetuate the “splendid living” and “Southern hospitality” myth in the face of overwhelming evidence that this is false.
The omission of meaningful education about slavery at Mount Vernon contributes to the general curricular silence about the fact that Washington and other slaveholders like him were stealing land, labor, language, and culture from disenfranchised people on a grand scale.
The Mount Vernon tour prevents critical thinking about U.S. history by reinforcing the traditional narrative about slavery and its legacy. This miseducation continues while collecting millions of dollars at the gate to further the myth.
With all the talk of virtue, morality, and principled values on the tour, is it too much to ask that the truth, the full truth, now be told at Mount Vernon?
Sudie Hofmann is a professor in the Department of Human Relations and Multicultural Education at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She is the author of the Zinn Education Project article, “Rethinking Cinco de Mayo.”
© Zinn Education Project, 2015