Danie Schallom, Coordinator of Education Outreach and Leadership Programs, recently sat down to discuss a new children’s book about slavery at Mount Vernon with author Marfé Ferguson Delano. Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and his Revolutionary Transformation highlights the lives of individual members of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon during George Washington’s lifetime and how the decision to free his slaves in his will came about.
What sparked your interest in writing a children’s book about slavery?
I live down the road from Mount Vernon. One of my friends told me she was thinking about writing a historical fiction about Charlotte, a slave owned by the Washingtons. I thought that was really interesting and I didn’t know we had details [of slaves] available to us. This set off my nonfiction radar; I thought there would be interesting stories to explore. Once I started doing the research I became engrossed by the enslaved people and by Washington as a slave owner.
How long did it take you to write the book?
6-7 years, other things intervened [during the project]. I drew up a proposal to send to my editor; she really liked the idea, but National Geographic needed a book about global warming, so that project came in between. Then I went back to Master George’s People and spent a lot of time researching while working on a couple of other projects. It’s the kind of project I am really glad I had a number of years in which to steep myself in the subject matter. Mary Thompson (Research Historian at Mount Vernon) was a wonderful resource. She helped point me toward a number of resources. My original idea was that it would be more about what it was like as a slave of Washington, but I realized I also had to weave in Washington’s attitude towards slavery.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching Washington, slavery, and the enslaved community at Mount Vernon?
Several things surprised me, I was surprised to learn when Martha married George her children brought their own personal slaves, at ages 3-4; the thought that young children were being plucked from their own families to take care of another family. I was surprised by the relative freedom of movement [of slaves]; they could go to Alexandria to sell produce they had in their garden and could sell what they grew to their master.
I was also surprised by Washington’s attitude as a young man towards slavery, especially when he participated in the raffle. (A raffle was held in Williamsburg, VA to raise money to pay the debts of Bernard Moore; gamblers participated to win valuable prizes, such as slaves). [This] was a real low point — it shows how much his attitude and conscience developed over time.
What do you want children to take away from the book after reading it?
A few things. I’d like them to see that the story of the founding of America, in terms of George Washington and other Founding Fathers, is more complicated than depicted in text books. I’d like them to take away the sense that people that we honor as heroes are human and have imperfections. We can honor them for their accomplishments and still look at them with a clear eye about their failings. I’d like the readers also to take away a sense of how much the enslaved people at Mount Vernon contributed to Washington’s success as a leader. Without them doing the work, it wouldn’t have been possible for Washington to become a leader. Kids are smart, they can understand stories on multiple levels, I wanted to add layers to the story.
Coordinator of Education Outreach and Leadership Programs
Read Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and his Revolutionary Transformation with your class.
Learn about the enslaved community at Mount Vernon through the eyes of Slammin’ Joe, one of Washington’s slaves
George Washington and Slavery: The 1799 Census of Slaves
This lesson plan uses George Washington