We've spent a lot of time looking at past achievements in these 28 days of Black History Month, and remembering is fitting. But something quite current has been going on that's important to note as this annual celebration draws to a close today.
Just over a year ago, in the woods of Mount Vernon where George Washington buried his slaves, only a small memorial, two feet by four feet, abandoned and overgrown, marked the burial ground of the hundreds of men and women who built the mansion and provided the free labor that ran the plantation. It was not roped off or in any way distinguishable from other parts of the property. This oversight added insult to the deep moral injury of slavery.
Just last Monday, however, ground was broken for what judges of an architectural competition have said will be an "awe-inspiring" memorial that will be erected by next year on Washington's birthday. It will honor the graves of Washington's slaves.
The story of the rescue of the Mount Vernon slave burial ground is a story of outrage, serendipity, historical reckoning, and growth.
Among those most outraged early in February 1982, was Fairfax County Supervisor James Scott. He read my column about the lack of any suitable memorial for the slaves and called Frank Matthews, legal counsel to the Fairfax County NAACP. Scott let Matthews know that the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which oversees the restoration and upkeep of the Mount Vernon estate, was scheduled to come before the Board of Supervisors requesting tax-exempt status for two restaurants on the grounds.
Frank Matthews was at that meeting. He objected to the tax-exempt status on the grounds that it violated the spirit and letter of the county's human rights ordinance to grant tax-exempt status to the Ladies because they had not properly memorialized the burial site. The Board of Supervisors agreed, and decided to withhold tax-exempt status until a pledge was made to work with the NAACP and come up with an appropriate memorialization. Tax-exempt status finally was granted conditionally.
Meanwhile, the Ladies Association quickly cleared the overgrown area, installed two park benches, laid a gravel path and opened the burial site to tourists.
But black community leaders wanted more, and two other persons from the Gum Springs-Mount Vernon community joined with Matthews to form a working committee to meet with the Ladies Association and the Mount Vernon staff. One was Judith Burton, a descendant of West Ford, a mulatto who was in the will of Hannah Washington, George Washington's sister. The other was activist and psychology professor William Carr.
Once it was decided that they would build a memorial, the group debated whether to sponsor a national competition, but were disturbed by the controversy surrounding the memorial to Vietnam veterans. They realized that Howard University had an outstanding school of architecture with a national student body. Harry G. Robinson, dean of the Howard University School of Architecture and Planning, suggested a competition in which the school would be divided into teams to submit competing designs.
The winning design was created by a 10-person group headed by David Edge, 28, and shows a tree-lined walk with a cut-off column in the center. Three circles surround the column, symbolizing faith, hope and love. Edge explained: "The source of the slaves' strength was hope, faith and love. The column, known for its strength, represents the strength of the slaves."
Blacks in the Mount Vernon area had long tried to get the conservative Ladies Association to do something significant to note black contributions to Mount Vernon, but to no avail. They now feel that the effort of erecting a monument to the slaves has opened the door toward greater cooperation. Certainly, members of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association have grown. "I'm so proud of the results of the memorial competition ," Frances Guy of Richmond, regent of the Association says enthusiastically. Adds Matthews: "The ladies enjoy it. They came in from all over the country to help judge the design. The new president is happy all this is going to happen during her tenure."
You could say this long overdue homage is little--and late. But it is a beginning. A big national celebration, dedication, and unveiling of the completed memorial is planned for George Washington's Birthday, 1984.
I can hardly wait.