They came to remember America's forgotten pioneers, the slaves.

In a ceremony laced with joy and pain, a crowd of 400 gathered yesterday at Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, to honor the hundreds of slaves who worked at the estate of the nation's first president.

The group, including Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, did not celebrate the institution of slavery, but rather the triumph of human spirit in an era that many blacks find painful to reflect on.

"This is not about slavery," said Sheila Bryant Coates, president of the Black Women United For Action, which sponsored the event along with the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. "It's about the strength of the people who endured slavery."

Wilder, the event's keynote speaker, departed from his normally reserved speaking style and sounded more like a fiery preacher:

"We take time to pay homage to those other forebears who toiled in . . . and emerged from . . . the shadows of yesteryear . . . palls of prejudice, hatred and discrimination, which for generations reduced freedom and equality to empty words imprisoned upon sheets of fading parchment."

Motioning with his hands, Wilder -- himself a descendant of slaves -- told a mostly black audience, "More than a few plantation owners achieved the American Dream through the reality of the African American nightmare . . . .

"Like many of you, I owe no small debt to the spirit and to the determination of such brave souls . . . those brave men and women whose tribulations helped make it possible for last November to happen," he said, referring to his becoming the nation's first black elected governor.

The rain that accompanied the festivities somehow seemed appropriate, Coates and others said.

"It's a very somber moment," said Melissa Black, a 23-year New Yorker stationed in Washington with the Navy. "The rain somehow fits. We can complain about the rain, but the slaves who worked here may not have had shoes."

Regina Williams, 36, of Springfield, spent the morning telling her 5-year-old daughter, Erica, about slavery. "She {Erica} didn't want to talk about it," Williams said. "She feels the pain. She is not ready to accept it."

Williams, who teaches African studies at Mount Vernon High, said she had told her daughter about slavery and brought her to the event because "the past cannot be erased, the pain and the suffering of our forefathers will always be present."

Amid the rolling pastures of this plantation on the banks of the Potomac River, there are traces of its slave-holding past. The slave burial ground is 50 yards southwest of George Washington's tomb. The graves of the slaves "are unmarked; {the} identities and numbers of those buried there {are} largely unknown," a press release for the event read.

About 50 slaves made up Washington's work force when he began farming Mount Vernon in 1759. By 1799, the year Washington died, the slave population had grown to 317 on a plantation that had its own gristmill, distillery and blacksmith shops.

"In his will, Washington provided for the freedom of his slaves after his death and left detailed instructions for the care and support of the newly freed people," according to literature distributed at the ceremony.

After Wilder's speech, members of the crowd made their way past a brick archway toward two memorials dedicated to Mount Vernon slaves, one in 1929, the other in 1983. Once inside, they placed boxwood on the shrines.

For some it was a time to ponder the future of black Americans and to remember times past.

Coates said thinking of the slaves caused her to feel "a gamut of emotions," noting that a poem written for the occasion summed up the event.

Excerpts from the poem read:

"In collective memory of our strong African ancestors, stolen from their native land . . . . To meet life's challenges and come full circle to greet our destiny . . . . We shall 'never' forget."