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Reconstructed Cabin at George Washington's Farm Shows How Slaves Once Lived

The organization that runs George Washington's estate near Washington, D.C. opened to the public a typical slave cabin from the 18th century. Most of those present at the dedication say the tiny house brought back painful memories of slavery in the U.S.

Producer Zulima Palacio covered the ceremony that unveiled the highest profile slavery exhibit at the first president's estate of Mount Vernon. Jim Bertel narrates the story.

A gospel singer helped dedicate the small shed. Some 300 of George Washington's slaves lived in cabins like it, about five by four meters. It was a typical house for those who worked the land on the president's farms. The reconstructed cabin will be included in the educational tours of Washington's estate at Mount Vernon.

The estate's director of preservation, Dennis Pogue, conducted archeological excavations that revealed exact dimensions of the cabins -- and poor living conditions of slaves in the late 1700s. "According to Washington's 1793 map of the plantation the cabins at the farm were arranged in rows of at least five buildings with the house of the resident overseer near by. As many as 75 individuals lived in one of the farms; meaning that these little houses would have accommodated between six and ten people each."

Poets, singers and scholars reflected about the history and suffering of the slaves.

Thomas Battle directs African American historical research at Howard University. He said slaves helped determined America's destiny. "They fought in the war of independence for principles they could understand but not enjoy. They helped to create a democracy based upon freedoms long denied them and only grudgingly conceded."

Two descendants of slaves who lived and died here were present. Zsun-Nee Matema was one of them. "I am here because I represent the voices of those who have passed over."

In a symbolic act, descendants and guests poured spoonfuls of soil from Washington's farms on a newly planted apple tree. Then they spontaneously sang a spiritual once sung by slaves.

(Lyrics:) "And before I'd be a slave I will be buried in my grave and go home to my lord and be free."

During his life, George Washington wrote of his doubts about slavery -- a practice common in his time. By the time he died he had freed nearly half of his slaves.