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George Washington's Slaves

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Reviewed by W. Ralph Eubanks
Sunday, February 24, 2008

SARAH JOHNSON'S MOUNT VERNON

The Forgotten History of an American Shrine

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By Scott E. Casper

Hill and Wang. 286 pp. $25

Before elaborate monuments and lavishly funded libraries preserved the memories of our presidents, there was Mount Vernon. After George Washington's death in 1799, his home and tomb in Virginia became the first temple to a U.S. president, an "American Westminster Abbey," in the words of University of Nevada history professor Scott E. Casper. Yet, for many years the history of slavery at Mount Vernon remained hidden in plain sight behind its graceful, carefully maintained facade.

Now, at last, Casper tells the story of the invisible men and women who worked the 8,000-acre riverfront estate for generations. While innumerable books have been written in recent years about the Founding Fathers, it's refreshing to read one in which slaves play a central part. Washington may have helped create our republic, but slaves built and upheld its economic infrastructure. In Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon, Casper reminds us that they were founders, too.

Anyone who visits Mount Vernon invariably learns that America's first president stipulated in his will that all his slaves should be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha, who outlived him by three years. But visitors may not realize that Washington's descendants -- including his great-grandnephew, Confederate army officer John Augustine Washington III -- continued to keep other slaves on the estate for decades.

After John Augustine Washington was publicly scorned for neglecting Mount Vernon in the 1850s, he sold the land and buildings to a group of women that became the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. Although the Ladies Association raised the money to restore Washington's home, it was the labor of African Americans that maintained the property for many more years.

Casper builds his narrative largely around Sarah Johnson, who was born a slave at Mount Vernon in 1844 to a teenage mother and was trained as a domestic servant. After emancipation, she was employed by the Ladies Association as a cook and maid, keeping the estate ready for its daily visitors. She "drew upon lessons from slavery days," Casper writes, and "played a featured role in the Mount Vernon that visitors saw, as she courteously sold them milk for five cents a glass."

On Sarah Johnson's death in 1920, the flags at Mount Vernon flew at half mast. The superintendent who ordered this gesture "meant no statement about racial equality," Casper notes. "In his words, the flag commemorated a 'faithful ex-servant of M.V.,' a woman who had earned respect by knowing her place." But during her lifetime, she went from slave to landowner and even took on some managerial duties at Mount Vernon.

Like most former slaves, Johnson was illiterate, which presents a challenge in telling her story; she did not leave behind any letters or diaries. The details of her life are drawn from the papers of people who owned her and those who eventually employed her, as well as documents and agreements that may have been read to her but that she could sign only with an "X." For a historian, it's difficult to capture a subject's voice without her own words. But Casper deftly uses the limited sources available to depict Johnson's life with an authenticity that is moving. At the same time, he intertwines her story with accounts of other black men and women who tended Mount Vernon over the years, many of them her relatives. And he shows how the lives of African Americans at Mount Vernon mirrored the changes taking place beyond the presidential shrine. By the time Johnson and her relatives left Mount Vernon, visitors were no longer arriving by integrated steamboats but by segregated street cars, a sign of the rise of Jim Crow.

There is no marker at Mount Vernon commemorating Sarah Johnson's contribution to its preservation. Fortunately, Scott Casper has given her a written memorial, and it is altogether fitting and proper. *

W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of "Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past."


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