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For descendants of slaves, a powerful connection

By Kevin Sieff
Sunday, August 8, 2010; C01

Carol Brantley moved quietly around a re-created slave cabin on the Mount Vernon estate, trying to imagine how eight people could share a single bed and a closet-size living space.

About two centuries and twelve generations ago, Brantley's relatives lived in a dank cabin like this one, working the fields of George Washington's pristine 8,000-acre residence.

On Saturday, for the first time, her family returned en masse to the Northern Virginia landmark as the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association hosted a reunion for 120 of Brantley's relatives, all descendants of slaves owned by the first U.S. president.

"For us, this isn't just American history," Brantley said. "This is family history." As well as having ties to the estate's slaves, Brantley's extended family members, the Quanders, are also related by blood to one of George Washington's nephews, experts say.

For the Quanders, their connection to Washington is at the heart of familial lore. It's a history they celebrate and lament but continue to pass on.

Quanders from all over the East Coast toured the estate, gathering around a memorial to the hundreds of slaves who lived and died here in the 1700s. Somewhere nearby, the Quander matriarch and field laborer Suckey Bay is buried in an unmarked grave.

Two hundred years after her death, judges, doctors, professors and their children placed boxwood twigs on the memorial, murmuring the names of the deceased.

"Look how far we've come," said Gloria Tancil Holmes. "It brings tears to my eyes."

That distance, traversed over generations, isn't just about the family's financial or professional successes, Tancil Holmes said. It's about a willingness to recognize the ugly truth about American slavery. "For years, it was something that people didn't really want to talk about, even our own family."

Then Mount Vernon officials began making an effort to document the estate's ties to slavery. They erected a permanent memorial to the first president's 316 slaves. They built a cabin that would tell the story of a typical slave family. Tancil Holmes's mother started giving tours that detailed the role of slaves on the estate.

"Things just started evolving," she said. Saturday marked another chapter in that evolution: For the second time in Mount Vernon's history, an African American family held a reunion on the grounds.

"The time has finally come. The day is finally here," Rohulamin Quander, the founder of the Quander Historical Society, told his extended family. "None of us should be embarrassed about our history that includes enslavement."

This weekend's reunion is the Quander family's 85th. Previous gatherings have taken the group to Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey but never Mount Vernon, a place of weighty symbolism.

"I grew up hearing so much about Mount Vernon, about our family's connection to this place," said Larry Mitchell of Chesapeake, Va. "And now I'm finally here. It's frightening and it's magnificent."

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