THE SCALE of Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, is majestic. The grounds roll out for 500 acres. The shaded veranda sweeps across the back of the house, affording one of the area's loveliest views of the Potomac River.
There is another view of the river, though, on the south slope of the grounds that provides a pleasant view of the river and an unpleasant sight beneath--a modest granite tomb laid flatly in the ground which reads:
"IN MEMORY OF THE MANY FAITHFUL COLORED SERVANTS OF THE WASHINGTON FAMILY BURIED AT MOUNT VERNON FROM 1760 TO 1860. THEIR UNIDENTIFIED GRAVES SURROUND THIS SPOT."
It is hardly a commemoration on the scale of the estate that they maintained. About 320 of them worked there in the last year of Washington's life, 1799 (the year that he was preparing to free them, according to John Castellani, the director of Mount Vernon). Since 1929, when the tomb was erected, the immediate area around the stone has deteriorated, and by last year, it was overgrown with bushes and closed to the public because of vandalism.
But a year and a half later, after one architectural design competition and numerous meetings of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and concerned community activists, a new monument is almost ready to be unveiled.
Though one possibly sticky problem remains--deciding on the inscription for the new memorial--if all goes smoothly, the memorial will be unveiled Sept. 21 at a ceremony. Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb is expected to attend.
The new memorial is the result of the joint political effort of several community members--including Judith Burton Saunders, a descendant of West Ford, a black man mentioned in Washington's will--along with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (which literally owns and runs Mount Vernon) and the artistic effort of a team of Howard University architecture students.
When a Fairfax County supervisor, spurred by a newspaper columnist's description of the old memorial, and Fairfax County lawyer Frank Matthews brought the matter of an inadequate memorial before the county Board of Supervisors, Castellani was asked to respond. He agreed to bring Matthews--who teaches law at George Mason University and does legal work for the NAACP--and other community members together with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (who came up with the money) to discuss the matter.
First the site of the grave marker was cleared and opened to the public. Then the group talked with the Howard University School of Architecture and Planning about a design. The school divided its students into teams of 10 to devise plans for the site. Architecture students assembled for a look around the site one crisp day last October.
"With the trees, it was like a little private place--it was so peaceful," said David Edge, the 28-year-old architecture student who headed the winning team. "All it needed was a centerpiece."
Edge says with a chuckle that he took his inspiration from Mount Vernon's ancestors themselves. "I sat up on the hill," he said, "and looked at the water and asked the people underground what they wanted, and they told me."
Edge's team's design focuses on a gray granite column that is cut off at the top at an angle. Around the column are three concentric circles, rising up from the ground at graduated levels--one labeled "faith," another "hope" and another "love." And surrounding all this is a short, circular brick wall, about 40 feet in diameter, that visitors can perch on while they study the column or simply survey the view.
The slaves, said Edge, "were carpenters and nurses and talented people. We wanted something pleasant for this. We didn't want a raging thing. Slavery was such a horrible thing. Faith, hope and love were the qualities no one could take from these people. The column represented their strength. I wanted to show it continuously went up to the sky, but it couldn't. So we cut it off at an angle."
There will be an archway--echoing the arched shape of the little building where Washington's tomb stands about 250 feet to the northwest--erected in front of the memorial for visitors to pass through. "The archway ties it in," said Edge, "and gives it the same respect as George Washington's tomb."
The inscription still must be written, and there will be a meeting of the Ladies Association and the community to discuss that Wednesday. "We would not like it to say something about loyal colored servants as it does now," said Matthews. "The inscription has to be a human statement--slavery has a connotation that impersonalizes it. These were human beings, like you and I, who were forced into this institution."