Far back in the woods of Mount Vernon, a lone stone monument marks the site where George Washington buried his slaves. It is a modest memorial, apparently too unimportant to be roped off or otherwise distinguished from the other parts of the property.
It seems not to matter that the hands of these men and women built the celebrated mansion that was Washington's home. It seems not to matter that these men and women provided the free labor on which the plantation operated. This absence of proper recognition is an atrocity that adds insult to the already deep moral injury of slavery.
The American Express Co. has a new promotion campaign to donate three cents of every dollar of local purchases on the American Express Card to help support the restoration and maintenance of Mount Vernon. Does that include the neglected slave monument? Nancy Muller of American Express says, "We do not know the specific restoration plans of the Mount Vernon Ladies Society. We have no knowledge of specifically how the funds will be spent."
On a recent rainy Wednesday, I left Mount Vernon's brick and gravel walkways, the mansion and the outlying cottages, the brass markers and brick guard houses to wander far back into the woods and walk the path the slaves trod to bury their kin. I walked upon the surprisingly still red leaves that formed an incongruously colorful canopy atop the nameless bodies underneath -- anonymous because the slaves were permitted burial only in unmarked graves. The burial site on the banks of the Potomac was surrounded by skeleton trees, black and leafless in the winter air.
I found the marker of Georgia marble, about 2 feet by 4 feet, and read its euphemistic inscription: "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." An eerie sense of isolation surrounds the place where an unknown number of Washington's 317 slaves were buried, and the long walk from the stately tomb of George Washington to this abandoned memorial seemed drenched with the tears of the slaves.
Later, I asked John Rhodehamel, the archivist for Mount Vernon, why the memorial is not recognized as being historically valid and authentic enough to be marked and part of the documented property.
"I don't know how to restore it," he began. "There were no pictures. There was one newspaper account from the 1840s of a visit to Mount Vernon and it mentioned that there were just mounds . . . no headstones, although one was marked with a picket fence. It was said by the slaves to be the grave of Billy Lee. I assume that his remains are down there some place mingled in . . . "
What about the millions of tourists who come every year and pay $3 to see Mount Vernon, I asked. Shouldn't they see something in the brochures on the grounds? "I suppose one thing you can do is mark the fact that there was something back there and mark the trail," he said. "We could fence it."
Then as if it had never before occurred to him, Rhodehamel added, "It probably is unfortunate that few people see it."
He paused a moment, then injected his belief that "slaves didn't keep diaries . . . didn't write letters, and that is the great problem." Not really, historians have noted, even though Virginia law forbade teaching slaves to read and write, and even forbade free blacks to remain in the state.
As a southern patriot, Washington's personal resolution of the dilemma that his search for liberty for himself and other whites was conducted while he continued to hold blacks in slavery, was resolved by freeing his slaves upon his death in 1799. Yet for more than a century afterward, not even a stone marker for the slaves existed.
In 1928, at a meeting of The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, which has restored and maintained the site, the minutes note that the graveyard was still unmarked. Fearing that "in the course of time, it is possible that all traces of the graves will disappear," the society the following year placed a simple marker on the grave sites far back in the woods.
And no one seems to have thought much about it since.