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Colonial Slave Quarters, Mount Vernon

Colonial Slave Quarters, Mount Vernon

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The Twisted History Of Washington's Mount Vernon

The quaint and very historic city of Mount Vernon, Virginia is special in many ways — namely because it is home to first president George Washington's ancestral estate of the same name. The gorgeous grounds overlooking the Potomac River include Washington's home, but also numerous other buildings of interest — like Washington's 16-sided, specially designed barn, for instance. Also on the estate is Washington's burial site, an elaborate tomb where the bodies of he, his wife Martha, and other family members rest today. Were it not preserved in 1858, Mt. Vernon might no longer be standing, but the home and its property are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, visitors to Mt. Vernon are treated to lots of interesting trivia about Washington's home. A replica of a special weathervane commissioned by the President himself can be seen on the home's cupola (the original was removed to protect it from the elements). Guests can see the restored, furnished rooms of the mansion and much more. And although there are few secrets and no hidden rooms at Mt. Vernon, the place does have some ghostly history, a few interesting facts (like the time Washington had a camel brought in to entertain guests), and some wild artifacts that contribute to its history. Here is the twisted history of Washington's Mount Vernon.

Black History at the Home of the Man who believed “All Men are Created Equal”

Imagine how the President and his family received guests at Mount Vernon’s restored sitting room. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

Join historic interpreters at the estate’s Slave Quarters to talk about the lives and achievements of its former slaves, a difficult topic that the estate has come to terms with. Daily throughout February, which is Black History Month, there are many special programs on the grounds and at the slave memorial.

During the Washingtons’ lifetime, the slave quarters stretched across the five farms on property to house 317 enslaved peoples. When George Washington died, his will asked that all slaves be freed. However, slaves who belonged to his wife or her family’s estate were kept in bondage and passed on to their heirs. Book ahead for the special 60-minute Enslaved People of Mount Vernon Tour held weekends in winter, at least once per day no charge.


The vast majority of plantations did not have grand mansions centered on a huge acreage. These large estates did exist, but represented only a small percentage of the plantations that once existed in the South. [1] Although many Southern farmers did enslave people before emancipation in 1862, few enslaved more than five. These farmers tended to work the fields alongside the people they enslaved. [4] Of the estimated 46,200 plantations existing in 1860, 20,700 had 20 to 30 enslaved people and 2,300 had a workforce of a hundred or more, with the rest somewhere in between. [3]

Many plantations were operated by absentee-landowners and never had a main house on site. Just as vital and arguably more important to the complex were the many structures built for the processing and storage of crops, food preparation and storage, sheltering equipment and animals, and various other domestic and agricultural purposes. The value of the plantation came from its land and the slaves who toiled on it to produce crops for sale. These same people produced the built environment: the main house for the plantation owner, the slave cabins, barns, and other structures of the complex. [5]

The materials for a plantation's buildings, for the most part, came from the lands of the estate. Lumber was obtained from the forested areas of the property. [5] Depending on its intended use, it was either split, hewn, or sawn. [6] Bricks were most often produced onsite from sand and clay that was molded, dried, and then fired in a kiln. If a suitable stone was available, it was used. Tabby was often used on the southern Sea Islands. [5]

Few plantation structures have survived into the modern era, with the vast majority destroyed through natural disaster, neglect, or fire over the centuries. With the collapse of the plantation economy and subsequent Southern transition from a largely agrarian to an industrial society, plantations and their building complexes became obsolete. Although the majority have been destroyed, the most common structures to have survived are the plantation houses. As is true of buildings in general, the more substantially built and architecturally interesting buildings have tended to be the ones that survived into the modern age and are better documented than many of the smaller and simpler ones. Several plantation homes of important persons, including Mount Vernon, Monticello, and The Hermitage have also been preserved. Less common are intact examples of slave housing. The rarest survivors of all are the agricultural and lesser domestic structures, especially those dating from the pre-Civil War era. [5] [7]

Slave quarters Edit

Slave housing, although once one of the most common and distinctive features of the plantation landscape, has largely disappeared from most of the South. Many were insubstantial to begin with. [8] Only the better-built examples tended to survive, and then usually only if they were turned to other uses after emancipation. Slave quarters could be next to the main house, well away from it, or both. On large plantations they were often arranged in a village-like grouping along an avenue away from the main house, but sometimes were scattered around the plantation on the edges of the fields where the enslaved people toiled, like most of the sharecropper cabins that were to come later. [9]

Slave houses were often one of the most basic construction. Meant for little more than sleeping, they were usually rough log or frame one-room cabins early examples often had chimneys made of clay and sticks. [8] [10] Hall and parlor houses (two rooms) were also represented on the plantation landscape, offering a separate room for eating and sleeping. Sometimes dormitories and two-story dwellings were also used as slave housing. Earlier examples rested on the ground with a dirt floor, but later examples were usually raised on piers for ventilation. Most of these represent the dwellings constructed for field slaves. Rarely though, such as at the former Hermitage Plantation in Georgia and Boone Hall in South Carolina, even field slaves were provided with brick cabins. [11]

More fortunate in their accommodations were the house servants or skilled laborers. They usually resided either in a part of the main house or in their own houses, which were normally more comfortable dwellings than those of their counterparts who worked in the fields. [10] [11] A few enslavers went even further to provide housing for their household servants. When Waldwic in Alabama was remodeled in the Gothic Revival style in the 1852, the household servants were provided with large accommodations that matched the architecture of the main house. This model, however, was exceedingly rare. [7]

Famous landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted had this recollection of a visit to plantations along the Georgia coast in 1855:

In the afternoon, I left the main road, and, towards night, reached a much more cultivated district. The forest of pines extended uninterruptedly on one side of the way, but on the other was a continued succession of very large fields, or rich dark soil – evidently reclaimed swamp-land – which had been cultivated the previous year, in Sea Island cotton, or maize. Beyond them, a flat surface of still lower land, with a silver thread of water curling through it, extended, Holland-like, to the horizon. Usually at as great a distance as a quarter of a mile from the road, and from a half mile to a mile apart, were the residences of the planters – large white houses, with groves of evergreen trees about them and between these and the road were little villages of slave-cabins . The cottages were framed buildings, boarded on the outside, with shingle roofs and brick chimneys they stood fifty feet apart, with gardens and pig-yards . At the head of the settlement, in a garden looking down the street, was an overseer's house, and here the road divided, running each way at right angles on one side to barns and a landing on the river, on the other toward the mansion .

Other residential structures Edit

A crucial residential structure on larger plantations was an overseer's house. The overseer was largely responsible for the success or failure of an estate, making sure that quotas were met and sometimes meting out punishment for infractions by the enslaved. The overseer was responsible for healthcare, with slaves and slave houses inspected routinely. He was also the record keeper of most crop inventories and held the keys to various storehouses. [13]

The overseer's house was usually a modest dwelling, not far from the cabins of the enslaved workers. The overseer and his family, even when white and southern, did not freely mingle with the planter and his family. They were in a different social stratum than that of the owner and were expected to know their place. In village-type slave quarters on plantations with overseers, his house was usually at the head of the slave village rather than near the main house, at least partially due to his social position. It was also part of an effort to keep the enslaved people compliant and prevent the beginnings of a slave rebellion, a very real fear in the minds of most plantation owners. [13]

Economic studies indicate that fewer than 30 percent of planters employed white supervisors for their slave labor. [14] Some planters appointed a trusted slave as the overseer, and in Louisiana free black overseers were also used. [13]

Another residential structure largely unique to plantation complexes was the garconnière or bachelors' quarters. Mostly built by Louisiana Creole people, but occasionally found in other parts of the Deep South formerly under the dominion of New France, they were structures that housed the adolescent or unmarried sons of plantation owners. At some plantations it was a free-standing structure and at others it was attached to the main house by side-wings. It developed from the Acadian tradition of using the loft of the house as a bedroom for young men. [15]

Kitchen yard Edit

A variety of domestic and lesser agricultural structures surrounded the main house on all plantations. Most plantations possessed some, if not all, of these outbuildings, often called dependencies, commonly arranged around a courtyard to the rear of the main house known as the kitchen yard. They included a cookhouse (separate kitchen building), pantry, washhouse (laundry), smokehouse, chicken house, spring house or ice house, milkhouse (dairy), covered well, and cistern. The privies would have been located some distance away from the plantation house and kitchen yard. [16]

The cookhouse or kitchen was almost always in a separate building in the South until modern times, sometimes connected to the main house by a covered walkway. This separation was partially due to the cooking fire generating heat all day long in an already hot and humid climate. It also reduced the risk of fire. Indeed, on many plantations the cookhouse was built of brick while when the main house was of wood-frame construction. Another reason for the separation was to prevent the noise and smells of cooking activities from reaching the main house. Sometimes the cookhouse contained two rooms, one for the actual kitchen and the other to serve as the residence for the cook. Still other arrangements had the kitchen in one room, a laundry in the other, and a second story for servant quarters. [7] [16] The pantry could be in its own structure or in a cool part of the cookhouse or a storehouse and would have secured items such as barrels of salt, sugar, flour, cornmeal and the like. [17]

The washhouse is where clothes, tablecloths, and bed-covers were cleaned and ironed. It also sometimes had living quarters for the laundrywoman. Cleaning laundry in this period was labor-intensive for the domestic slaves that performed it. It required various gadgets to accomplish the task. The wash boiler was a cast iron or copper cauldron in which clothes or other fabrics and soapy water were heated over an open fire. The wash-stick was a wooden stick with a handle at its uppermost part and four to five prongs at its base. It was simultaneously pounded up and down and rotated in the washing tub to aerate the wash solution and loosen any dirt. The items would then be vigorously rubbed on a corrugated wash board until clean. By the 1850s, they would be passed through a mangle. Prior to that time, wringing out the items was done by hand. The items would then be ready to be hung out to dry or, in inclement weather, placed on a drying rack. Ironing would have been done with a metal flat iron, often heated in the fireplace, and various other devices. [18]

The milkhouse would have been used by slaves to make milk into cream, butter, and buttermilk. The process started with separating the milk into skim milk and cream. It was done by pouring the whole milk into a container and allowing the cream to naturally rise to the top. This was collected into another container daily until several gallons had accumulated. During this time the cream would sour slightly through naturally occurring bacteria. This increased the efficiency of the churning to come. Churning was an arduous task performed with a butter churn. Once firm enough to separate out, but soft enough to stick together, the butter was taken out of the churn, washed in very cold water, and salted. The churning process also produced buttermilk as a by-product. It was the remaining liquid after the butter was removed from the churn. [19] All of the products of this process would have been stored in the spring house or ice house. [16]

The smokehouse was utilized to preserve meat, usually pork, beef, and mutton. It was commonly built of hewn logs or brick. Following the slaughter in the fall or early winter, salt and sugar were applied to the meat at the beginning of the curing process, and then the meat was slowly dried and smoked in the smokehouse by a fire that did not add any heat to the smokehouse itself. [20] If it was cool enough, the meat could also be stored there until it was consumed. [16]

The chicken house was a building where chickens were kept. Its design could vary, depending on whether the chickens were kept for egg production, meat, or both. If for eggs, there were often nest boxes for egg laying and perches on which the birds to sleep. Eggs were collected daily. [16] Some plantations also had pigeonniers (dovecotes) that, in Louisiana, sometimes took the form of monumental towers set near the main house. The pigeons were raised to be eaten as a delicacy and their droppings were used as fertilizer. [21]

Few functions could take place on a plantation without a reliable water supply. Every plantation had at least one, and sometimes several, wells. These were usually roofed and often partially enclosed by latticework to keep out animals. Since the well water in many areas was distasteful due to mineral content, the potable water on many plantations came from cisterns that were supplied with rainwater by a pipe from a rooftop catchment. These could be huge aboveground wooden barrels capped by metal domes, such as was often seen in Louisiana and coastal areas of Mississippi, or underground brick masonry domes or vaults, common in other areas. [7] [22]

Ancillary structures Edit

Some structures on plantations provided subsidiary functions again, the term dependency can be applied to these buildings. A few were common, such as the carriage house and blacksmith shop but most varied widely among plantations and were largely a function of what the planter wanted, needed, or could afford to add to the complex. These buildings might include schoolhouses, offices, churches, commissary stores, gristmills, and sawmills. [7] [23]

Found on some plantations in every Southern state, plantation schoolhouses served as a place for the hired tutor or governess to educate the planter's children, and sometimes even those of other planters in the area. [7] On most plantations, however, a room in the main house was sufficient for schooling, rather than a separate dedicated building. Paper was precious, so the children often recited their lessons until they memorized them. The usual texts in the beginning were the Bible, a primer, and a hornbook. As the children grew older their schooling began to prepare them for their adult roles on the plantation. Boys studied academic subjects, proper social etiquette, and plantation management, while girls learned art, music, French, and the domestic skills suited to the mistress of a plantation. [24]

Most plantation owners maintained an office for keeping records, transacting business, writing correspondence, and the like. [7] Although it, like the schoolroom, was most often within the main house or another structure, it was not at all rare for a complex to have a separate plantation office. John C. Calhoun used his plantation office at his Fort Hill plantation in Clemson, South Carolina as a private sanctuary of sorts, with it utilized as both study and library during his twenty-five year residency. [25]

Another structure found on some estates was a plantation chapel or church. These were built for a variety of reasons. In many cases the planter built a church or chapel for the use of the plantation slaves, although they usually recruited a white minister to conduct the services. [26] Some were built to exclusively serve the plantation family, but many more were built to serve the family and others in the area who shared the same faith. This seems to be especially true with planters within the Episcopal denomination. Early records indicate that at Faunsdale Plantation the mistress of the estate, Louisa Harrison, gave regular instruction to her slaves by reading the services of the church and teaching the Episcopal catechism to their children. Following the death of her first husband, she had a large Carpenter Gothic church built, St. Michael's Church. She latter remarried to Rev. William A. Stickney, who served as the Episcopal minister of St. Michael's and was later appointed by Bishop Richard Wilmer as a "Missionary to the Negroes," after which Louisa joined him as an unofficial fellow minister among the African Americans of the Black Belt. [27]

Most plantation churches were of wood-frame construction, although some were built in brick, often stuccoed. Early examples tended towards the vernacular or neoclassicism, but later examples were almost always in the Gothic Revival style. A few rivaled those built by southern town congregations. Two of the most elaborate extant examples in the Deep South are the Chapel of the Cross at Annandale Plantation and St. Mary's Chapel at Laurel Hill Plantation, both Episcopalian structures in Mississippi. In both cases the original plantation houses have been destroyed, but the quality and design of the churches can give some insight into how elaborate some plantation complexes and their buildings could be. St. Mary Chapel, in Natchez, dates to 1839, built in stuccoed brick with large Gothic and Tudor arch windows, hood mouldings over the doors and windows, buttresses, a crenelated roof-line, and a small Gothic spire crowning the whole. [28] Although construction records are very sketchy, the Chapel of the Cross, built from 1850 to 1852 near Madison, may be attributable to Frank Wills or Richard Upjohn, both of whom designed almost identical churches in the North during the same time period that the Chapel of the Cross was built. [29] [30]

Another secondary structure on many plantations during the height of the sharecropping-era was the plantation store or commissary. Although some antebellum plantations had a commissary that distributed food and supplies to slaves, the plantation store was essentially a postbellum addition to the plantation complex. In addition to the share of their crop already owed to the plantation owner for the use of his or her land, tenants and sharecroppers purchased, usually on credit against their next crop, the food staples and equipment that they relied on for their existence. [7] [31]

This type of debt bondage, for blacks and poor whites, led to a populist movement in the late 19th century that began to bring blacks and whites together for a common cause. This early populist movement is largely credited with helping to cause state governments in the South, mostly controlled by the planter elite, to enact various laws that disenfranchised poor whites and blacks, through grandfather clauses, literacy tests, poll taxes, and various other laws. [31]

Agricultural structures Edit

The agricultural structures on plantations had some basic structures in common and others that varied widely. They depended on what crops and animals were raised on the plantation. Common crops included corn, upland cotton, sea island cotton, rice, sugarcane, and tobacco. Besides those mentioned earlier, cattle, ducks, goats, hogs, and sheep were raised for their derived products and/or meat. All estates would have possessed various types of animal pens, stables, and a variety of barns. Many plantations utilized a number of specialized structures that were crop-specific and only found on that type of plantation. [32]

Plantation barns can be classified by function, depending on what type of crop and livestock were raised. [33] In the upper South, like their counterparts in the North, barns had to provide basic shelter for the animals and storage of fodder. Unlike the upper regions, most plantations in the lower South did not have to provide substantial shelter to their animals during the winter. Animals were often kept in fattening pens with a simple shed for shelter, with the main barn or barns being utilized for crop storage or processing only. [32] Stables were an essential type of barn on the plantation, used to house both horses and mules. These were usually separate, one for each type of animal. The mule stable was the most important on the vast majority of estates, since the mules did most of the work, pulling the plows and carts. [32]

Barns not involved in animal husbandry were most commonly the crib barn (corn cribs or other types of granaries), storage barns, or processing barns. Crib barns were typically built of unchinked logs, although they were sometimes covered with vertical wood siding. Storage barns often housed unprocessed crops or those awaiting consumption or transport to market. Processing barns were specialized structures that were necessary for helping to actually process the crop. [33]

Tobacco plantations were most common in certain parts of Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia. The first agricultural plantations in Virginia were founded on the growing of tobacco. Tobacco production on plantations was very labor-intensive. It required the entire year to gather seeds, start them growing in cold frames, and then transplant the plants to the fields once the soil had warmed. Then the slaves had to weed the fields all summer and remove the flowers from the tobacco plants in order to force more energy into the leaves. Harvesting was done by plucking individual leaves over several weeks as they ripened, or cutting entire tobacco plants and hanging them in vented tobacco barns to dry, called curing. [34] [35]

Rice plantations were common in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Until the 19th century, rice was threshed from the stalks and the husk was pounded from the grain by hand, a very labor-intensive endeavor. Steam-powered rice pounding mills had become common by the 1830s. They were used to thresh the grain from the inedible chaff. A separate chimney, required for the fires powering the steam engine, was adjacent to the pounding mill and often connected by an underground system. The winnowing barn, a building raised roughly a story off of the ground on posts, was used to separate the lighter chaff and dust from the rice. [36] [37]

Sugar plantations were most commonly found in Louisiana. In fact, Louisiana produced almost all of the sugar grown in the United States during the antebellum period. From one-quarter to one-half of all sugar consumed in the United States came from Louisiana sugar plantations. Plantations grew sugarcane from Louisiana's colonial era onward, but large scale production did not begin until the 1810s and 1820s. A successful sugar plantation required a skilled retinue of hired labor and slaves. [38]

The most specialized structure on a sugar plantation was the sugar mill (sugar house), where, by the 1830s, the steam-powered mill crushed the sugarcane stalks between rollers. This squeezed the juice from the stalks and the cane juice would run out the bottom of the mill through a strainer to be collected into a tank. From there the juice went through a process that removed impurities from the liquid and thickened it through evaporation. It was steam-heated in vats where additional impurities were removed by adding lime to the syrup and then the mixture was strained. At this point the liquid had been transformed into molasses. It was then placed into a closed vessel known as a vacuum pan, where it was boiled until the sugar in the syrup was crystallized. The crystallized sugar was then cooled and separated from any remaining molasses in a process known as purging. The final step was packing the sugar into hogshead barrels for transport to market. [39]

Cotton plantations, the most common type of plantation in the South prior to the Civil War, were the last type of plantation to fully develop. Cotton production was a very labor-intensive crop to harvest, with the fibers having to be hand-picked from the bolls. This was coupled with the equally laborious removal of seeds from fiber by hand. [40]

Following the invention of the cotton gin, cotton plantations sprang up all over the South and cotton production soared, along with the expansion of slavery. Cotton also caused plantations to grow in size. During the financial panics of 1819 and 1837, when demand by British mills for cotton dropped, many small planters went bankrupt and their land and slaves were bought by larger plantations. As cotton-producing estates grew in size, so did the number of slaveholders and the average number of slaves held. [41] [40]

A cotton plantation normally had a cotton gin house, where the cotton gin was used to remove the seeds from raw cotton. After ginning, the cotton had to be baled before it could be warehoused and transported to market. This was accomplished with a cotton press, an early type of baler that was usually powered by two mules walking in a circle with each attached to an overhead arm that turned a huge wooden screw. The downward action of this screw compressed the processed cotton into a uniform bale-shaped wooden enclosure, where the bale was secured with twine. [42]

Many manor houses survive, and in some cases former slave dwellings have been rebuilt or renovated. To pay for the upkeep, some, like the Monmouth Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi and the Lipscomb Plantation in Durham, North Carolina, have become small luxury hotels or bed and breakfasts. Not only Monticello and Mount Vernon but some 375 former plantation houses are museums that can be visited. There are examples in every Southern state. Centers of plantation life such as Natchez run plantation tours. Traditionally the museum houses presented an idyllic, dignified "lost cause" vision of the antebellum South. Recently, and to different degrees, some have begun to acknowledge the "horrors of slavery" which made that life possible. [43]

In late 2019, after contact initiated by Color of Change, "five major websites often used for wedding planning have pledged to cut back on promoting and romanticizing weddings at former slave plantations." The New York Times, earlier in 2019, "decided. to exclude couples who were being married on plantations from wedding announcements and other wedding coverage." [44]

Plantation owner Edit

An individual who owned a plantation was known as a planter. Historians of the antebellum South have generally defined "planter" most precisely as a person owning property (real estate) and 20 or more slaves. [45] In the "Black Belt" counties of Alabama and Mississippi, the terms "planter" and "farmer" were often synonymous. [46]

The historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman define large planters as those owning over 50 slaves, and medium planters as those owning between 16 and 50 slaves. [47] Historian David Williams, in A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom, suggests that the minimum requirement for planter status was twenty slaves, especially since a Southern planter could exempt Confederate duty for one white male per twenty slaves owned. [48] In his study of Black Belt counties in Alabama, Jonathan Weiner defines planters by ownership of real property, rather than of slaves. A planter, for Weiner, owned at least $10,000 worth of real estate in 1850 and $32,000 worth in 1860, equivalent to about the top eight percent of landowners. [49] In his study of southwest Georgia, Lee Formwalt defines planters in terms of size of land holdings rather than in terms of numbers of slaves. Formwalt's planters are in the top 4.5% of landowners, translating into real estate worth $6,000 or more in 1850, $24,000 or more in 1860, and $11,000 or more in 1870. [50] In his study of Harrison County, Texas, Randolph B. Campbell classifies large planters as owners of 20 slaves, and small planters as owners of between 10 and 19 slaves. [51] In Chicot and Phillips Counties, Arkansas, Carl H. Moneyhon defines large planters as owners of 20 or more slaves, and of 600 acres (240 ha) or more. [52]

Many nostalgic memoirs about plantation life were published in the post-bellum South. [53] For example, James Battle Avirett, who grew up on the Avirett-Stephens Plantation in Onslow County, North Carolina, and served as an Episcopal chaplain in the Confederate States Army, published The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin before the War in 1901. [53] Such memoirs often included descriptions of Christmas as the epitome of anti-modern order exemplified by the "great house" and extended family. [54]

Novels, often adapted into films, presented a romantic, sanitized view of plantation life. The most popular of these were The Birth of a Nation (1916), based on Thomas Dixon Jr.,'s best-selling novel The Clansman (1905), and Gone with the Wind (1939), based on the best-selling novel of the same name (1936) by Margaret Mitchell.

Overseer Edit

On larger plantations an overseer represented the planter in matters of daily management. Usually perceived as uncouth, ill-educated, and low-class, he had the often despised task of meting out punishments in order to keep up discipline and secure the profit of his employer. [55] [ better source needed ]

Slavery Edit

Southern plantations depended upon slaves to do the agricultural work. "Honestly, 'plantation' and 'slavery' is one and the same," said an employee of the Whitney Plantation in 2019. [56]

"Many plantations, including George Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, are working to present a more accurate image of what life was like for slaves and slave owners." [57] "The changes have begun to draw people long alienated by the sites' whitewashing of the past and to satisfy what staff call a hunger for real history, as plantations add slavery-focused tours, rebuild cabins and reconstruct the lives of the enslaved with help from their descendants." [56]

McLeod Plantation focuses primarily on slavery. "McLeod focuses on bondage, talking bluntly about “slave labor camps” and shunning the big white house for the fields." [56] "'I was depressed by the time I left and questioned why anyone would want to live in South Carolina,' read one review [of a tour] posted to Twitter." [57]


When George Washington's ancestors acquired the estate, it was known as Little Hunting Creek Plantation, after the nearby Little Hunting Creek. [7] However, when Washington's older half-brother, Lawrence Washington, inherited it, he renamed it after Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who had been his commanding officer during the War of Jenkins' Ear and was famed for having captured Portobello from the Spanish. [8] When George Washington inherited the property, he retained the name. [7]

The current property consists of 500 acres (200 ha) [9] the Mansion and over 30 outbuildings are situated near the riverfront. [10] The property contained 8,000 acres (3,200 ha) when Washington lived there. [11]

Architecture Edit

The present mansion was built in phases from approximately 1734, by an unknown architect, under the supervision of Augustine Washington. [4] This staggered and unplanned evolution is indicated by the off-center main door. As completed and seen today, the house is in a loose Palladian style. The principal block, dating from about 1734, was a one-story house with a garret. [4] In the 1750s, the roof was raised to a full second story and a third floor garret. There were also one-story extensions added to the north and south ends of the house these were torn down during the next building phase. [12] The present day mansion is 11,028 sq ft (1,025 m 2 ). [13]

In 1774, the second expansion began. A two-story wing was added to the south side. Two years later a large two-story room was added to the north side. [12] Two single-story secondary wings were built in 1775. These secondary wings, which house the servants hall on the northern side and the kitchen on the southern side, are connected to the corps de logis by symmetrical, quadrant colonnades, built in 1778. The completion of the colonnades cemented the classical Palladian arrangement of the complex and formed a distinct cour d'honneur, known at Mount Vernon as Mansion Circle, giving the house its imposing perspective.

The corps de logis has a hipped roof with dormers and the secondary wings have gable roofs with dormers. In addition to its second story, the importance of the corps de logis is further emphasized by two large chimneys piercing the roof and by a cupola surmounting the center of the house this octagonal focal point has a short spire topped by a gilded dove of peace. [14] This placement of the cupola is more in the earlier Carolean style than Palladian and was probably incorporated to improve ventilation of the enlarged attic and enhance the overall symmetry of the structure and the two wings a similar cupola crowns the Governor's House at Williamsburg, of which Washington would have been aware.

Though no architect is known to have designed Mount Vernon, some attribute the design to John Ariss, a prominent Virginia architect who designed Paynes Church in Fairfax County (now destroyed) and likely Mount Airy in Richmond County. [15] Other sources credit Colonel Richard Blackburn, who also designed Rippon Lodge in Prince William County and the first Falls Church. [16] [17] Blackburn's granddaughter Anne married Bushrod Washington, George's nephew, and is interred at the Washingtons' tomb on the grounds. Most architectural historians believe that the design of Mount Vernon is solely attributable to Washington alone and that the involvement of any other architects is based on conjecture. [18]

Interior Edit

The rooms at Mount Vernon have mostly been restored to their appearance at the time of George and Martha Washington's occupancy. Rooms include Washington's study, two dining rooms (the larger known as the New Room), the West Parlour, the Front Parlour, the kitchen and some bedrooms. [19]

The interior design follows the classical concept of the exterior, but owing to the mansion's piecemeal evolution, the internal architectural features – the doorcases, mouldings and plasterwork – are not consistently faithful to one specific period of the 18th-century revival of classical architecture. Instead they range from Palladianism to a finer and later neoclassicism in the style of Robert Adam. [19] This varying of the classical style is best exemplified in the doorcases and surrounds of the principal rooms. In the West Parlour and Small Dining rooms there are doorcases complete with ionic columns and full pediments, whereas in the hall and passageways the doors are given broken pediments supported by an architrave. [19] Many of the rooms are lined with painted panelling and have ceilings ornamented by plasterwork in a Neoclassical style much of this plasterwork can be attributed to an English craftsman, John Rawlins, who arrived from London in 1771 bringing with him the interior design motifs then fashionable in the British capital. [19]

Visitors to Mount Vernon now see Washington's study, a room to which in the 18th century only a privileged few were granted entry. This simply furnished room has a combined bathroom, dressing room and office the room was so private that few contemporary descriptions exist. Its walls are lined with naturally grained paneling and matching bookcases. [20] In contrast to the privacy of the study, since Washington's time, the grandest, most public and principal reception room has been the so-called New Room or Large Dining Room – a two-storied salon notable for its large Palladian window, occupying the whole of the mansion's northern elevation, and its fine Neoclassical marble chimneypiece. [21] The history of this chimneypiece to some degree explains the overall restrained style of the house. When it was donated to Washington by English merchant Samuel Vaughan, Washington was initially reluctant to accept the gift, stating that it was "too elegant & costly I fear for my own room, & republican stile of living." [22]

Efforts have been made to restore the rooms and maintain the atmosphere of the 18th century this has been achieved by using original color schemes and by displaying furniture, carpets and decorative objects which are contemporary to the house. The rooms contain portraits and former possessions of George Washington and his family. [19]

Grounds Edit

The gardens and grounds contain English boxwoods, taken from cuttings sent by Major General Henry Lee III ("Light Horse Harry" Lee, a Governor of Virginia and the father of Robert E. Lee), which were planted in 1786 by George Washington and now crowd the entry path. A carriage road skirts a grassy bowling green to approach the mansion entrance. To each side of the green is a garden contained by red brick walls. These Colonial Revival gardens [23] grew the household's vegetables, fruit and other perishable items for consumption. The upper garden, located to the north, is bordered by the greenhouse. [24] Ha-ha walls are used to separate the working farm from the pleasure grounds that Washington created for his family and guests. [25] The overseer's quarter, spinning room, salt house, and gardener's house are between the upper garden and the mansion.

The lower garden, or southern garden, is bordered on the east by the storehouse and clerk's quarters, smokehouse, wash house, laundry yard, and coach house. A paddock and stable are on the southern border of the garden east of them, a little down the hillside, is the icehouse. The original tomb is located along the river. The newer tomb in which the bodies of George and Martha Washington have rested since 1831 is south of the fruit garden the slave burial ground is nearby, a little farther down the hillside. A "Forest Trail" runs through woods down to a recreated pioneer farm site on low ground near the river the 4-acre (16,000 m 2 ) working farm includes a re-creation of Washington's 16-sided treading barn. [26]

A museum and education center are on the grounds and exhibit examples of Washington's survey equipment, weapons, and clothing, as well as dentures worn by the first President. The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington opened in 2013. [27] The library fosters new scholarship about George Washington and safeguards original Washington books and manuscripts. The site is open for scholarship by appointment only.

Washington family Edit

In 1674, John Washington (the great-grandfather of President Washington) and his friend Nicholas Spencer came into possession of the land from which Mount Vernon plantation would be carved, originally known by its Indian name of Epsewasson. [28] [a] The successful patent on the acreage was largely executed by Spencer, who acted as agent for his cousin Thomas Colepeper, 2nd Baron Colepeper, [28] the English landowner who controlled the Northern Neck of Virginia, in which the tract lay. [29]

When John Washington died in 1677, his son Lawrence, George Washington's grandfather, inherited his father's stake in the property. In 1690, he agreed to formally divide the estimated 5,000 acre (20 km 2 ) estate with the heirs of Nicholas Spencer, who had died the previous year. The Spencers took the larger southern half bordering Dogue Creek in the September 1674 land grant from Lord Culpeper, leaving the Washingtons the portion along Little Hunting Creek. (The Spencer heirs paid Lawrence Washington 2,500 lb (1,100 kg) of tobacco as compensation for their choice.) [28]

Lawrence Washington died in 1698, bequeathing the property to his daughter Mildred. On 16 April 1726, she agreed to a one-year lease on the estate to her brother Augustine Washington, George Washington's father, for a peppercorn rent a month later the lease was superseded by Augustine's purchase of the property for £180. [30] He built the original house on the site around 1734, when he and his family moved from Pope's Creek to Eppsewasson, [31] which he renamed Little Hunting Creek. [32] The original stone foundations of what appears to have been a two-roomed house with a further two rooms in a half-story above are still partially visible in the present house's cellar. [31]

Augustine Washington recalled his eldest son Lawrence (George's half-brother) home from school in England in 1738 and set him up on the family's Little Hunting Creek tobacco plantation, thereby allowing Augustine to move his family back to Fredericksburg at the end of 1739. [7] In 1739, Lawrence, having reached his majority (age 21), began buying up parcels of land from the adjoining Spencer tract, starting with a plot around the grist mill on Dogue Creek. In mid-1740 Lawrence received a coveted officer's commission in the Regular British Army and made preparations to go off to war in the Caribbean with the newly formed American Regiment to fight in the War of Jenkins' Ear. [33] He served under Admiral Edward Vernon returning home, he named his estate after his commander.

George Washington Edit

Lawrence died in 1752, and his will stipulated that his widow should own a life estate in Mount Vernon, the remainder interest falling to his half-brother George George Washington was already living at Mount Vernon and probably managing the plantation. Lawrence's widow, Anne Fairfax, remarried into the Lee family and moved out. [34] Following the death of Anne and Lawrence's only surviving child in 1754, George, as executor of his brother's estate leased his sister-in-law's estate. Upon the death of Anne Fairfax in 1761, he succeeded to the remainder interest and became sole owner of the property. [35]

In 1758, Washington began the first of two major additions and improvements by raising the house to two-and-a-half stories. [35] The second expansion was begun during the 1770s, shortly before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Washington had rooms added to the north and south ends, unifying the whole with the addition of the cupola and two-story piazza overlooking the Potomac River. The final expansion increased the mansion to 21 rooms and an area of 11,028 square feet. [25] The great majority of the work was performed by African American slaves and artisans. [36]

Agriculture and enterprise Edit

Washington had been expanding the estate by the purchase of surrounding parcels of land since the late 1750s and was still adding to the estate well into the 1780s, including the River Farm estate. [37] From 1759 until the Revolutionary War, Washington, who at the time aspired to become a prominent agriculturist, had five separate farms as part of his estate. He took a scientific approach to farming and kept extensive and meticulous records of both labor and results.

In a letter dated 20 September 1765, Washington writes about receiving poor returns for his tobacco production:

Can it be otherwise than a little mortifying then to find, that we, who raise none but Sweetscented Tobacco, and endeavour I may venture to add, to be careful in the management of it, however we fail in the execution, and who by a close and fixed corrispondance with you, contribute so largely to the dispatch of your Ships in this Country shoud [sic] meet with such unprofitable returns? [38]

In the same letter he asks about the prices of flax and hemp, with a view to their production:

In order thereto you woud do me a singular favour in advising of the general price one might expect for good Hemp in your Port watered and prepared according to Act of Parliament, with an estimate of the freight, and all other Incident charges pr. Tonn that I may form some Idea of the profits resulting from the growth. I should be very glad to know at the sametime how rough and undressd Flax has generally, and may probably sell for this year I have made an Essay in both, and altho I suffer pretty considerably by the attempt, owing principally to the severity of the Drougth [sic], and my inexperience in the management I am not altogether discouraged from a further prosecution of the Scheme provided I find the Sales with you are not clogd with too much difficulty and expence.

The tobacco market had declined, and many planters in northern Virginia converted to mixed crops. Like them, by 1766 Washington had ceased growing tobacco at Mount Vernon and had replaced the crop with wheat, corn, and other grains. Besides hemp and flax, he experimented with 60 other crops including cotton and silk. He also derived income from a gristmill which produced cornmeal and flour for export and also ground neighbors' grain for fees. Washington similarly sold the services of the estate's looms and blacksmith.

Washington built and operated a small fishing fleet, permitting Mount Vernon to export fish. Washington practiced the selective breeding of sheep in an effort to produce better quality wool. He was not as invested in animal husbandry as he was in cropping experiments, which were elaborate and included complex field rotations, nitrogen fixing crops and a range of soil amendments. [39] The Washington household consumed a wider range of protein sources than was typical for the Chesapeake population of his day, which consumed a great deal of beef. [40]

The new crops were less labor-intensive than tobacco hence, the estate had a surplus of slaves. But Washington refused to break up families for sale. Washington began to hire skilled indentured servants from Europe to train the redundant slaves for service on and off the estate. [41] Following his service in the war, Washington returned to Mount Vernon and in 1785–1786 spent a great deal of effort improving the landscaping of the estate. It is estimated that during his two terms as President of the United States (1789–1797), Washington spent a total of 434 days in residence at Mount Vernon. After his presidency, Washington tended to repairs to the buildings, socializing, and further gardening.

George Washington's will Edit

In his will, written several months before his death in December 1799, George Washington left directions for the emancipation of all the slaves who belonged to him. Of the 317 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799, a little less than half, 123 individuals, belonged to George Washington. Under the terms of his will, these slaves were to be set free upon Martha Washington's death. [42]

In accordance with state law, George Washington stipulated in his will that elderly slaves or those who were too sick to work were to be supported throughout their lives by his estate. Children without parents, or those whose families were too poor or indifferent to see to their education, were to be bound out (or apprenticed) to masters and mistresses who would teach them reading, writing, and a useful trade, until they were ultimately freed at the age of twenty-five. [42]

When Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died without a will, she received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including the slaves. Neither George nor Martha Washington could free these slaves by law. Upon Martha's death, these slaves reverted to the Custis estate and were divided among her grandchildren. By 1799, 153 slaves at Mount Vernon were part of this dower property. [42]

Fearing that her deceased husband's slaves might kill her to gain their freedom, Martha signed a deed of manumission for them in December 1800. [43] Abstracts of the Fairfax County, Virginia, Court Records record this transaction. The slaves received their freedom on January 1, 1801. [42]

Placing slavery’s role in history

The homes of the nation’s first presidents receive as much care and attention as any historic sites in the nation. Special societies raise money to preserve and protect them. Researchers dote on the finest points of their architecture and family heritage.

But until recent years, there was little focus on a painful reality in the history of several of the founding fathers: George Washington, who led the Colonial forces seeking freedom from the British Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence proclaimed the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and James Madison, who wrote the Constitution “in order to . . . secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” all owned slaves.

“How do you deal with the fact that Jefferson’s a national hero, Madison and Washington were heroes, and they all had slaves?” asked James Oliver Horton, a history professor at George Washington University who focuses on slavery. “Most people try to ignore it.”

The most famous -- and most visited -- presidential home, Washington’s Mount Vernon, has just added a piece of history that has long been known but, until now, was not really visible -- a reconstructed slave cabin, similar to those that housed the slaves who worked the fields of its outlying farms.

The tiny cabin -- with its crudely cut log exterior, rough pallet on the floor and bare loft -- stands in stark contrast to Washington’s 11,400-square-foot mansion five miles away, with its opulent furnishings, white-pillared veranda and vistas of the Potomac River.

Construction of the 16-by-14-foot dwelling was based in part on a 1908 photo of a dilapidated slave cabin, one of many that once dotted the 8,000-acre estate. In a letter written in 1798, a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon described “the huts of the Blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses,” as “wretched” and “more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants.”

But that jolt of despair, said Sheila Coates, president of Black Women United for Action, is what Mount Vernon needed. Before the dedication of the cabin Sept. 19, the only depiction of slave life at Mount Vernon was a dormitory-style brick structure reconstructed on the farm nearest the mansion. The original residence -- part of the estate’s greenhouse, which burned down in the mid-1800s -- housed 97 house servants and craftsmen, the “elite” of the estate’s 316 slaves.

“There are people who saw those slave quarters and would think, ‘Well, the slave didn’t have it so bad,’ ” said Coates, whose group had pushed for years for a realistic representation of how the field slaves lived.

The cabin interprets the lives of actual slaves on one of Mount Vernon’s farms: a married couple, Slammin’ Joe and Silla, and their six children. Inside are their rations, salted fish and two sacks of cornmeal outside are a small vegetable garden and a chicken coop that they used to supplement their diet. “In order to fully understand what their lives were like, visitors must see how they lived,” said Dennis J. Pogue, Mount Vernon’s director of preservation.

Acknowledging slave ownership “is much more common than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s still a topic that people would like us to deal with more.”

Other presidential homes in Virginia are taking similar steps.

At Monticello, Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, communications director Wayne Mogielnicki said construction would soon begin on the slave cabins and workshops along Mulberry Row, an area near the main house where root cellars, thousands of artifacts and cabin foundations were excavated 30 years ago.

Tour guides discuss Jefferson’s slave ownership, along with the belief that he fathered one or more children born to Sally Hemings, a house slave.

So far, though, the only depiction of slave life at Monticello is the restored cook’s quarters, a comfortably furnished 10-by-14-foot room next to the home’s expansive kitchen.

Ash Lawn-Highland, James Monroe’s estate near Monticello, rebuilt quarters for a house slave in 1985. The executive director, Carolyn Holmes, said the long-term plan was to reconstruct the homes of the field slaves, “when we have documentation present.”

And there are promises of reconstructed slave quarters within the next decade at Montpelier, James Madison’s home near Orange, Va., where a freedman’s cabin dating from the 1800s has been restored. “As far as we know, it’s the only freedman’s home in Virginia,” said Christian Cotz, the estate’s student education coordinator.

But where presidents’ homes have, until now, lacked concrete depictions of the difficult lives of the slaves who worked there, other historical sites in Virginia have shown slaves’ contributions to Colonial America and the conditions in which they lived.

“It may not be the world through rose-colored glasses, but it is an essential element for the history of this nation, and you cannot ignore it,” said Jim Bradley, a spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

At Carter’s Grove, a plantation along the James River eight miles from Williamsburg, four slave cabins were reconstructed in the late 1980s, after archaeological excavations a decade earlier revealed remnants of slaves’ home lives. The historic area in Williamsburg itself offers reenactments of slaves’ daily lives in a thriving Colonial town.

“At the time of the American Revolution, slightly over half of the population of Williamsburg was of African descent,” Bradley said. Without slave labor, “a tremendous amount of accomplishments would have been impossible.”

Although presidential homes have acknowledged on their tours that the founding fathers did own slaves, said Horton, the historian at George Washington University, they are years behind Williamsburg in bringing the difficulties of slaves’ daily existence to life. “Freedom-loving” Americans just can’t deal with slavery, he said.

“All these national heroes were doing things that we thought were evil,” Horton said. “Even in their society, people knew they were hypocritical.”

Lives Bound Together

Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Edited by Susan P. Schoelwer, Senior Curator at George Washington's Mount Vernon, with an introduction by Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University. ISBN-13: 978-970931917-0. Copyright 2016. Softcover with 172 pages.

At the time of George Washington's death in 1799, more than 300 enslaved men, women, and children lived on his Mount Vernon plantation. Lives Bound Together provides fresh research on this important topic, with brief biographies of 19 enslaved individuals, 10 essays, and 130 illustrations (including paintings, prints, and household furnishings from the Mansion, artifacts excavated by archaeologists from the slave quarters, documents, maps, and conjectural silhouettes that suggest the presence of the enslaved). The text illuminates the lives, families, and experiences of the enslaved people of Mount Vernon as well as Washington's own evolving views on slavery, culminating in his pioneering action to free his slaves per the terms of his will.

A Mount Vernon bookplate, signed by the author, is included with your purchase.

Colonial in: The complicated history of Colonial Williamsburg

It’s a gorgeous morning in Colonial Williamsburg, and I am cheering for America’s most notorious traitor. It’s not just me, it’s everyone — 250 people, families, people in wheelchairs, people in strollers, people with dogs, children with tricorne hats and wooden guns. We’re standing bunched together in something of a mob at the end of Duke of Gloucester Street, right outside the colonial Capitol, and for a moment we are all clapping and whistling and yelling “huzzah.” We are psyched.

Robert Weathers has been working up the crowd. He’s yelling at the top of his voice news about the glorious American victory in the Battle of Saratoga (huzzah!) thanks to our brave troops (huzzah!) and their talented major general, Benedict Arnold (huzz . uh). Laughter flickers through the crowd, and I hear a dad tell a child, good-naturedly, to stop cheering. A few of us keep going. I’m not sure if the others are being funny or perverse or don’t recognize the name, but I am cheering for what just happened. Every one of us had to take a second to think about the complexity of war, and the fickleness of heroism.

Meanwhile, removed from the crowd, I notice a person in period costume who is not cheering. He looks subdued, doubtful, conflicted. He is black. The speaker is talking about the necessity of fighting for one’s freedom.

That’s right, I’m in Colonial Williamsburg, and it’s making me think. Revolutionary.

Since the 1930s, when the project opened to the public, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has employed tour guides in 18th-century costumes. They were originally all female and called “hostesses” the most important requirement, according to the project’s founder, the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, was that they be Southern.

By 1940, the foundation was employing African Americans to represent slaves. “Archaically clad slaveys,” as a Washington Post travel article called them, dressed the part but did not pretend to be colonial-era persons. Through the ’50s, the costumed employees lived in segregated dorms, and black visitors had only one designated day a week to tour the historic area. In the ’60s, critics began to complain about Williamsburg’s emphasis on rich white men, noting as late as 1976 the “almost total absence of any reference to slavery,” in one visitor’s words. Historian Anders Greenspan refers to this period as Williamsburg’s transition from monument to educational institution. In 1979, Colonial Williamsburg hired three black interpreters, including Rex Ellis, who went on to develop the African American studies program at Colonial Williamsburg and today is director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ellis told the Daily Press in 2009 that, at first, his family thought that pretending to be a slave was the worst thing he could do, given his education and opportunities.

As our culture learns more and thinks differently about the past, Williamsburg has grown with us, struggling, as it must, to follow both historical accuracy and financial viability. Bill Weldon, the foundation’s manager of public history development, says the mission is “that people be provoked to think about citizenship.” Since 2006, that enterprise has taken a turn for the theatrical, with 40 actor-interpreters representing real historical people from the town, with names and identifying details discovered the same way any historian discovers them. The characters participate in scripted scenes, extended monologues and extemporaneous conversation with visitors. This street-theater reimagining of Williamsburg is called Revolutionary City.

From a theater nerd’s perspective, which I just happen to have, this is terribly exciting. Street theater and educational plays have a pretty bad rap of late. But there’s street theater three hours south of Washington that gets more than a million visitors a year — painfully cool, avant-garde street theater that wants to change the minds of families on vacation and middle-schoolers on field trips. Tourists can avoid the darker parts of Colonial Williamsburg if they wish — or they can seek it out.

“We never found anything we aren’t willing to portray,” Weldon says. “We’d try to find a way to portray tar -and feathering, if it had happened.” It nearly does, in one scene. Revolutionary City has staged execution by firing squad — behind a wall — and scenes with slaveholders and enslaved characters, as well as scenes of a town occupied by a foreign power.

“If you are responsible and if you portray things responsibly and realistically, it’s the best teaching method,” Weldon says of the interactive, environmental street theater. “Public history, as opposed to academic.” The same year that Revolutionary City debuted, Mount Vernon unveiled its $5 million, 20-minute action-adventure movie starring a dashing young George Washington in the French and Indian War. History has gone cutting-edge.

Which makes the job of actor-interpreter at Revolutionary City a very interesting one indeed. Full-time, year-round, non-union acting gigs that pay a living wage (with benefits!) are thin on the ground already, but add the research and interactivity, and you’ve got financial stability, creativity, and a clear artistic and intellectual mission — facets that only a tiny, lucky fraction will find in New York or Los Angeles.

I’d been told to come to the 9 a.m. briefing/strategy session in the blacksmith’s house to meet the actor-interpreters during a bit of their downtime. The rebuilt historic houses along Duke of Gloucester Street are set up as colonial shops and private residences. Not seeing anyone coming or going, I assume I have the wrong address, but Jim Bradley, communications manager for Colonial Williamsburg, finds me and takes me around the back.

“When you live in a period house,” he tells me, “you don’t ever answer the front door. Come and go by the back doors. They’re usually outside of the public eye.” Around the back is the excavation of the next historical site being built, a half-dug-up smithy. Actors are arriving in costume from the parking lot — a mix of men and women, young and middle-aged, black and white. There’s a half-colonial feel to all of it, with ponytailed wigs still in the hairnets they’re stored in to protect the braids. A gentleman is using a steam iron on a drawstring bag. Suzie Allen is reading out the list of who will play what, when and where. There’s a coffeepot and a fridge. This is a break room it’s 18th century only on the outside.

“Anyone feel the need to rehearse?” Allen asks the room. There are about 20 actors here, and they are generally avoiding modern figures of speech, though I do hear one actor call another “Captain Queernabs,” which I figure must be a reference to something on YouTube.

Nobody feels the need to rehearse.

What is it like to interact with an audience as an 18th-century man? Robert Weathers, the Benedict Arnold champion, answers. “The number one mistake you can make is pointing out how [the visitors] are different from you. It opens you up to questions about the microphone.” The actors wear wireless mics, with a battery pack that tucks into their waistbands or under their skirts.

Colonial Williamsburg gives its actor-interpreters pamphlets about how to sound 18th-century. Say “above stairs” or “below stairs.” Terms like “hussy,” “slut” and “to make love” weren’t particularly rude. The actors tend to favor the insults. Bill Rose, one of the actor-interpreters, has an 1812 “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” and will write five archaic words for the day and their definitions. It turns out “Captain Queernabs” is a shabby gentleman.

The actor-interpreters call me out for saying a cobbler makes shoes. (He only repairs them. It is a touchy subject.) They show me their handy chart, the “lowerarchy of humor,” on which they rate each others’ bad jokes on a low-threshold continuum from Yakov Smirnoff to Carlos Mencia. And they tell me about the two-hour discussion they had the other day about racism — whether colonial racism was necessarily about inherent racial inequality or whether it was about slaves being a “conquered people.” “Is racism today the same as it was then?” asks Art Johnson from the back of the room. He seems to want to rekindle the conversation, but this morning is too boisterous and slaphappy for it to catch hold.

There are also non-employee, non-volunteer folk who will make their own costumes and walk the streets, occasionally answering questions or giving unofficial talks. “We can’t vouch for everyone in a pointy hat,” Weathers says.

Each actor-interpreter does individual research during the park’s off period in January and February. Topics include colonial-era dance, boxing or cosmetics. “It reflects our interests,” says actor-interpreter Deirdre Jones. “And it benefits our interpretation. We can make these people more human.” And sometimes there are the tourists who object. “People tell me [as Kate, a slave], you can’t read!” Jones says. “And I say, there’s evidence that she could.” Kate is a real historical woman owned by a Mr. Trebell, who sent slaves to the Bray school, where Ann Wager taught them from the Bible. One of Jones’s slave characters gives tours of the Governor’s Palace — and because she would not be talkative with free Williamsburgers, the people taking the tour are cast as outsider slaves, sent to help set up a party.

There’s a scene in which Weathers has Eddie Menzies, playing a slave, in leather cuffs. “We walk down the street, and I explain he’s a runaway slave,” Weathers says. “Everyone thinks — runaway slave, good! People will try to free me,” says Menzies. “Robert will say I might get loose and hurt someone. One [tourist] said, ‘You wouldn’t hurt me!’ And I took it a step further: ‘If killing you meant getting my freedom, I’d kill you and your whole family.’ ”

For me, the only uncomfortable part of the whole experience is interacting with an actor pretending to be a slave.

Art Johnson, 49, realizes he has a hurdle to overcome. “You make the visitors feel comfortable so they can ask a question,” he says, eating a sandwich in the break room. Johnson sees himself more as an interpreter than an actor. He takes his historical knowledge and research and puts it in terms the visitor will understand. Which at times is more than people want to do.

“People will walk away, say they don’t want to hear it. People sit down in awe.” At another Williamsburg site, he says, “a lady I saw went down on her knees and cried, looking at the slave quarters.

“I’m in a city that at its height was over 50 percent black,” Johnson says. “It’s not always represented. It’s like taking someone to Georgetown and saying, ‘This is America.’ ”

Thomas Jefferson is onstage in front of a packed audience in the Hennage Auditorium in the mental hospital museum, showing off his “laptop.” It’s a portable desk he invented. The crowd eats it up. He tells us why the Declaration changed from one draft to the next. Originally, he held these truths to be sacred and inviolable, but he revised them in order to ground equality in human logic rather than in religious terms. Inevitably, at question-and-answer time, someone asks about his rumored sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, whom he owned.

“I would go to the ends of the earth to defend your right to say what you wish,” Jefferson says, “and my right not to answer.” Big laughs. . He stays afterward for 10 or 15 minutes, shaking hands and posing for pictures.

Bill Barker has been Thomas Jefferson for 27 years, originally at Independence Hall but here at Williamsburg for the past 17 years. He had been a history major but was pursuing theater in New York and Washington when a friend of his who played William Penn in Philadelphia asked if anyone had ever told him he looked like Thomas Jefferson.

Spend an hour with Bill Barker, and he’ll name-check Tacitus and Thucydides, drop paragraph-long quotations of Jefferson’s views on health care, and mention the medical experiments Jefferson performed on himself to try to cure his ailments — including attempts to self-catheterize. Barker will argue convincingly why he thinks Jefferson was a Freemason.

Whatever burden comes with wearing the frock coat and the ponytail, Barker embraces it. People expect him to say profound things, and he does. When a little boy asked him to define happiness, he answered with his take on Aristotle’s definition: fulfillment of one’s own capacity. And when a small girl asked what to say to your brother who has gone to war, he told her: “Let him know it’s for your benefit, the nation’s benefit. Help him to understand this is the highest duty.”

Barker has his own theory about the founders’ purpose in creating Colonial Williamsburg.He takes off his microphone and says: “My father, who was drafted into the First World War, said this was [primary donor John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s] gift to the South — after the Civil War, to remind us of when we were all working together, of compromise. It certainly took vision to see what something like this could mean.”

Revolutionary City is where Mr. Jefferson lives, but it’s also where a character named Wil, a slave owned by a tavern-keeper, lives. I meet Wil the first time when I come upon him telling a tourist family that the revolutionaries were talking only of their own freedom, not freedom for everyone. As I walked by, Wil straightened up, advised the family that you never know who is listening, and bowed to me, a white woman in jeans, telling me he “didn’t mean no trouble,” and acting worried about what my response would be. I was startled to suddenly be cast in the role of oppressor. Wil was afraid of me.

I responded with something awkward and modern, like, “No, you’re fine,” and I tried to bow back. I felt the need to make a joke. “I’m one of the nice ones!” Nothing worked nothing improved the situation of me against them. At that point, it didn’t matter what I did.

And that is when everything changed.

It didn’t matter at all that I was one of the nice ones. It didn’t matter what I said. What mattered to Wil was my white skin. It ruptured any sort of connection we could have. Somehow — it seems ridiculous now — I had imagined that if I had lived here in the 1700s, being nice, being me, having the conviction that slavery was wrong would make a friendship with someone like Wil possible.

I tracked Wil down the next day looking for catharsis. He stayed in his character, and left me in the one he’d designated for me the previous day. He was just as serious. He made me sit in the shade while he sat in the sun. He asked if I had brought a slave, and how a woman had traveled from Washington on her own, and if I was afraid, and he asked so plainly and earnestly and directly that I was playing along without realizing it. He told me his wife and son were sold down to North Carolina after a Christmas celebration got out of hand he showed me scars on his back — real scars, though not particularly lash-like — from the whipping he got when he left his owner without permission to help his uncle die. The uncle had died already when he arrived.

Wil asked me if I thought he should find another wife. He loves his wife still, but isn’t sure he’ll ever see her again, and a man gets lonesome. Nothing I said could comfort Wil. I asked him how much he cost — a hundred pounds — and he told another group of tourists that I would buy him and take him up North. I hadn’t said that. But I suspect a lot of people promise to buy Wil.

The best theater, the best art, will grow a compassion and perspective in you that you didn’t know you lacked. It will show you that you were incomplete and that you have more to learn.

Wil is played by Greg James. If you go to Revolutionary City to meet him, there is nothing you can do for him. But he can do so much for you.

7. Pay Your Respects at Washington’s Tomb and the Slave Memorial

George and Martha Washington are buried side-by-side in a tomb located below the fruit orchard. Washington died in his bedroom at Mount Vernon, and his will specified that he be buried on the estate. The Slave Memorial, located 50 yards from the tomb, is located on the site of a burial ground for slaves and free blacks who worked at Mount Vernon. Special wreath laying ceremonies are held at Washington’s Tomb and the Slave Memorial daily, but you can stop and pay your respects any time.

Tip: Washington’s Tomb and the Slave Memorial are located downhill from the Mansion on a dirt path so can be difficult to reach for people with limited mobility.

3D Sculpture of George Washington

The museum at Mount Vernon displays a collection of more than 700 objects including furnishings, china, silver, clothing, jewelry, Revolutionary War artifacts, rare books and manuscripts, and other personal effects of the Washington family. The building also serves as Washington's presidential library with classroom space and computers that will provide access to more than 20,000 letters written by Washington during his lifetime.

Watch the video: Slave Quarters Reopen at George Washingtons Mount Vernon (May 2022).