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

Conflicts Engulf Christians in Mideast

Research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities, and Christians are facing persecution in a growing number of countries in the region More

Chinese Americans: Don’t Call Us 'Model Minority'

Label points to collective achievement, but some say it triggers resentment, unrealistic expectations More

Iran Bolsters Phone, Internet Surveillance

Does increased monitoring suggest the government is nervous? 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.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Polish Ghetto

When the Nazi army moved into the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid