George Washington, the father of our country, owned 124 human beings when he died in 1799. Yesterday on a secluded knoll at Washington's Mount Vernon estate, with a wet wind slapping through the forest and thunder growling across the Potomac, the plantation's old slave burial ground with its anonymous graves was dedicated as a national memorial to people who helped make America great and didn't get much credit for it.
After all, on this splendid site 184 years ago the slaves did the hoeing and hauling and smithing and cooking, the cleaning and painting and herding and milling. Washington's slaves were freed under the terms of his will.
"Here lie my ancestors: Thank God Almighty this day has finally arrived!" said Judith Saunders Burton in a speech at the dedication ceremony. Burton's great-great-great-grandfather, West Ford (1784-1863), once a slave and later a free black who helped manage Mount Vernon for the Washington family, is thought to be buried there.
"Here lie my ancestors," Burton went on, quoting a poem she wrote, in a voice that grew stronger and stronger:
A people raped of a country
A people raped of a homeland
A people raped of a tradition
A people raped of a heritage
A people raped of a culture!
As Burton spoke before the gray granite column standing at the center of the memorial's small circular bricked area, members of the Howard University Choir sang softly in the background.
The memorial, designed by a team of students at Howard University's School of Architecture and Planning, bears a carved inscription dedicating it "in memory of the Afro-Americans who served as slaves at Mount Vernon." The words "Love," "Hope" and "Faith" are inscribed on the steps leading up to the granite column.
"The history of America must be the history of all Americans," said Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb in his speech. He noted that the economic and other contributions of black slaves to the development of the nation were "important and broad-ranging and unnoticed. America would not have become what it has without these contributions." Robb characterized the memorial as "the repayment of an immeasurable debt long unacknowledged and even longer in arrears."
Helen Sharp Anderson, regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, a private organization that owns and operates Mount Vernon as a historic site open to the public, said in her remarks: "George Washington was opposed to slavery. This is demonstrated, as he put it in 1799: 'I wish from my soul that the legislature of the state could see the policy of a gradual abolition of slavery.' "
Earlier, she said, after the American Revolution, Washington wrote, "I am principaled against this kind of traffic in the human species . . . and to disperse the families I have an aversion."
"Abolition was not possible in the eighteenth century," Anderson said. "Anti-slavery sentiment was present in the colonies, but it was a minority view. Another 60 years were to go by before abolition came to represent a majority view." Then it took the Civil War to put the view into effect.
Anderson noted that Washington's tomb stands about 50 yards away from the memorial site. She added, "He is joined now to those faithful ones who served him and Mount Vernon so well."
The keynote speaker, Prof. James Turner, director of Africana studies at Cornell University, said that the memorial is unique and makes Virginia a leader in recognizing the accomplishments of black slaves, just as in Colonial times Virginia, through its laws, was "a leader in the debasement of blacks."
Turner talked about slavery as the central contradiction of American history--the enslavement of human beings in America at the very height of the Age of Enlightenment, when this nation was being dedicated to freedom and the furtherance of human rights.
The slaves of Mount Vernon, he said, were "not simple, loyal servants . . . These people buried here . . . were not members of the family when they walked these grounds . . . George Washington and George Washington's slaves lived in different places and different times . . . on the same plantation."