On Sunday, I went to visit Mt. Vernon with friends Ben and Will to see the place where George Washington truly slept. I found the grounds lovely, the house underwhelming (mainly because we were paraded through like a long line of lemmings, without any real chance to actually look at the furniture, architecture and other structures), the "educational center" loud, crowded and superficial…
I did like the forge, where the interpreter explained how they tried to create the fittings for the restored buildings the way they were originally built, talking about the type of fittings needed, the type of metal used, why some of the original metalwork was done locally and some bought from the Philadelphia area (it was cheaper). They did it all as it was done then; if they took any shortcuts (as one visitor suggested), he said, they might as well do the work in Bermuda shorts and with air conditioning. "Sounds good to me!" called out the blacksmith.
But the really interesting area, at least to me, was the building containing slave dormitories, which have been recently restored. Two rooms, one for men and one for women, hold several bunks, each wide enough for two adults; an area for a supply of grain and other foodstuffs,; a fireplace and a few cooking utensils; a spinning wheel and a place to hang a few washed items; a high, small window; and a few other simple sticks of furniture.
Not far away were the quarters for the overseer and Washington's clerk. By today's standards, they were Spartan — a bed, a storeroom for food, a fireplace, a chair and desk, and a wooden stair to an upper attic, perhaps a picture. But compared to the slave barracks, they were homey and comfortable. (I'm not even going to begin to compare them to the Washington home.)
The other area of interest was a memorial that was put up in 1983 in an area thought to be the place where at least some of Washington's slaves were buried. Not far from the place where George and Martha Washington were buried, the memorial reads:
In memory of
the Afro Americans
who served as slaves
at Mount Vernon
this monument marking their
September 21, 1983
A few yards away is a plain stone set low into the ground, the previous memorial to the people who spent their lives in hard, unpaid labor. It reads:
1760 to 1860
surround this spot
Typical of many early 20th century views of the institution. They were not slaves, they were servants, implying that somehow they had a choice in the matter. And they were not only servants, but faithful servants, earning the trust of their employers…uh, owners.
Two that did not end their lives in that cemetery managed to escape to freedom. As told by one of the nearby interpreters, they left during the months of household chaos that ensued when Washington left the office of the Presidency and returned to Mount Vernon. Oney Judge, who had been born at Mount Vernon and was one of Martha Washington's body servants, escaped to Philadelphia in 1796 and settled in Portsmouth, NH, from where Washington twice tried to get her to return (according to the interpreter, once forcefully); she avoided his representatives and/or refused to be persuaded. She died in New Hampshire in 1848 — legally, still a fugitive.
The other escapee, the head chef of Washington's household known only as Hercules, escaped to Philadelphia in 1847 and then to New York, but nothing more is apparently known about him.
So in the end, I was glad I went. I saw some lovely scenery, I survived the assembly line through the mansion and the multi-multi-media of the education center, and I learned a few things.