News / USA

Harsh Life of Washington's Slaves Revisited

Refurbished Mount Vernon quarters shed new light on the slaves of America's first president

Documents written by George Washington, his family, white employees and other plantation owners provided information about the slaves and their quarters at Mount Vernon.
Documents written by George Washington, his family, white employees and other plantation owners provided information about the slaves and their quarters at Mount Vernon.

Multimedia

Audio
Faiza Elmasry

George Washington was born into a world where slavery was an accepted part of life. When his father died in 1743, Washington - at the age of 11 - inherited 10 slaves.

When the nation's first president died in 1799, more than 300 slaves lived in quarters on his Mount Vernon estate. This year, those slave quarters, first opened to the public in 1962, went through an extensive archaeological analysis and restoration.

These refurbished quarters shed new light on the story of the slaves who lived and worked at Mount Vernon.

Hard life

The renovated quarters are two one-story wings added to the Mount Vernon greenhouse shortly after Washington became president. Each one is divided into two small workrooms, and two sleeping areas, one for men and another for women. Most of Washington's married slaves did not live in the same household as their spouses. Each room had a fireplace and was accessed by a single doorway.

"We have a lot of archaeological materials that we excavated from the slave quarter site," Archeologist Dennis Pogue says. "And from that, we know the kinds of things that they were actually using; the ceramics that they were eating from, the food remains. We found a lot of animal bones, so we know that they were eating lots and lots of wild animals-- that they were augmenting the rations that they were getting from the Washington's."

Pogue  says documents written by George Washington, his family and white employees, and other plantation owners provided information about the quarters and the slaves who lived there.

"I mean we have some descriptions of what these quarters look like and they describe them as huts and they say 'They are more miserable than anything that you can imagine,'" Pogue says. "We don't want to whitewash this part of the story. These folks were owned by other people. They had no rights of their own and they were doing hard work."

Bringing history to life

The actual restoration of the site took almost 10 months. In addition to restoring the living quarters, clothing, tools, furniture, cookware, toys and personal accessories used by the slaves were reproduced. These items help bring to life the living conditions and experiences of the maids, cooks, servants, skilled craftsmen and laborers who worked on the five farms that made up the Mount Vernon property.

The renovated quarters include two one-story structures added at Mount Vernon shortly after George Washington became president.
The renovated quarters include two one-story structures added at Mount Vernon shortly after George Washington became president.

"It's a culmination of over 20 years of research. So it's wonderful to see this brought to the public's attention," he adds.

A number of descendants of George Washington's slaves attended the opening celebration of the restored quarters. Among them was Rohulamin Quander, a senior administrative judge in Washington, D.C. and founder of the Quander Historical Society.

"Sukey Bay was an 18th century Quander ancestor who lived at the River Farm," Quander says. "She had several children: Nancy Carter Quander and Rose, both were Sukey Bay's daughters. Nancy was a spinner. She lived up to 1850s. We have records for her working around in landscaping right here at Mount Vernon and other Quander family ancestors worked here. We have a long history of involuntary and presumably uncompensated servitude."

Last summer, the Quanders celebrated their 85th family reunion at Mount Vernon. Quander says renovating the slave quarters is a significant gesture of recognition for the hundreds of enslaved African Americans - men and women - who lived there.

"For many years, their names were forgotten,Quander adds. "The roles that they had played were forgotten. If the man they worked for, George Washington, is glorified, we want to give these men and women their just due because they were the ones who toiled from sunup to sundown, six to seven days a week, who made it possible for him to go off to do many, many great things that benefited all of us."

Learning opportunity

The chance to see what life was like for slaves by visiting the renovated slave quarters is a great opportunity for teachers like Beth Cayer. She's brought her 5th grade students on a field trip to Mount Vernon as part of their history class.

"It's beautiful. I hadn't seen it last year, so I was really excited for the kids to see it this year, because we've done a big unit about colonial America and we did a 4-day-lesson on slavery," Crayer says. "So it was a real eye-opener to a lot of the kids, the conditions that they lived in here. Of course some of the kids have the ancestors that came over that way. So it was a real eye-opener for them to see the contrast in life styles. It made a real impression on them."

Giving visitors a better understanding of the nature and harshness of slavery was one of the reasons for restoring the buildings. The point was not lost on Gloria Alice Holmes, another of Sukey Bay's descendants who came to Mount Vernon for the dedication ceremony.

"It's raining today," Holmes says. "I'd like to say in my opinion, the rain- that's the tears of the slaves saying thank you, thank you for not forgetting us."

Mount Vernon officials expect more than one million visitors to tour the restored slave quarters next year.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs