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Archive for the ‘Slavery’ Category

July 4, 2013

Collections Uncovered

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Mount Vernon recently acquired a large collection of family papers from descendants of Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854) and her husband Thomas Peter (1769-1834). As research on the collection continues, Mount Vernon’s Research Historian, Mary V. Thompson, will share the stories emerging from this treasure trove of information including information about the family, as well as topics such as life in the new city of Washington, DC; politics in the early republic; and, as discussed in this post, slavery.

As the owner of Mount Vernon following George Washington’s death, Mrs. Washington had to step into her late husband’s very large shoes in order to keep the plantation operating smoothly. This was not unfamiliar territory for Martha Washington who had taken over the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, following his death in 1757. Management of an estate such as Mount Vernon required oversight of the farms, the enslaved community, the household expenses, and the animals. In 1801, under Martha Washington’s management, a $72.64 bill was paid to the sheriff of Fairfax County for taxes owed on 138 slaves and 97 horses. Her account with a Dr. Hamilton shows that he made at least 15 visits to slaves on the estate between December 6, 1801 and September 6, 1802, during which he provided medicines and powders for those who were ill, bled several individuals, dressed wounds, assisted with one birth, and pulled one tooth.

Following Martha Washington’s death on May 22, 1802, Thomas Peter, her grandson-in-law, helped to manage her estate as one of the executors of her will.

One of the documents found in the Peter Collection that is most revealing about slavery is a receipt dated January 12, 1803. Written at nearby Woodlawn plantation, the home of Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis and her husband Lawrence Lewis, this receipt recorded that the sum of $50 was “received from Mr. Thomas Peter…in full for my Hire as a Smith on Mount Vernon Estate for the year 1802″.

The recipient of the payment was a blacksmith named George who signed his name with a simple cross; an indication that he could not write. Blacksmiths played an important role in plantation life where their skills were needed to shoe horses as well as to make and repair iron tools and equipment. This particular blacksmith, George, is undoubtedly the same blacksmith named George who was a member of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon freed by Martha Washington on January 1, 1801 in accordance with George Washington’s will. He had been hired back as a free person, because he had a skill Mount Vernon needed.

Mary V. Thompson
Research Historian
Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington

Category: Mount Vernon, MV Historian Series, Research/Lectures, Slavery

June 13, 2013

Master George’s People: An Interview with Author Marfé Ferguson Delano

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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.

MasterGeorgesPeople

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.

Danie Schallom
Coordinator of Education Outreach and Leadership Programs
Education Department

Classroom Connections

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

Category: Classroom Connections, Mount Vernon, Slavery

March 27, 2013

Encyclopedia Entry: Slave Resistance at Mount Vernon

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Marcus_Runaway

Mount Vernon’s enslaved population resisted their forced servitude in a variety of ways. As argued by Mary Thompson, Mount Vernon’s Research Historian, “The enslaved population at Mount Vernon did not meekly accept their bonded lot in life.” Rather, slaves practiced a mixture of methods of resistance, including tactics such as work slow downs and feigning illness; the advantage of these methods was that “they were often difficult for George Washington and his managers to observe and prove.”

Thompson also points out that “On the opposite end of the resistance spectrum were more active and noticeable actions such as theft, arson, sabotage of crops, and running away.” While these types of actions “might be especially satisfying” for an enslaved person, “they also carried far greater risk of detection and punishment.”

One of the more infamous accounts of resistance at Mount Vernon occurred in 1781 when 17 slaves ran away to the British warship HMS Savage, anchored on the Potomac River close to Mount Vernon. For more information on the HMS Savage see our blog post from February 27, 2013.

To read more about slave resistance at Mount Vernon visit the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.

Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington

Continue reading Encyclopedia Entry: Slave Resistance at Mount Vernon »

Category: Classroom Connections, Digital Encyclopedia, Slavery

February 27, 2013

Encyclopedia Entry: H.M.S. Savage

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During the spring of 1781, seventeen Mount Vernon slaves took advantage of the arrival of the British warship Savage on the shores of the plantation to make a bid for freedom. With George Washington away from his home serving as commander of the Continental Army, the Savage arrived at Mount Vernon seeking supplies. Writing about the experience years later, Lund Washington (the temporary manager of Mount Vernon) explained that the Savage sent a message to Mount Vernon that it would be burned unless the ship was given “a large supply of provisions.”

As explained in today’s featured Digital Encyclopedia entry, while supplies were being sent to the British ship, seventeen Mount Vernon slaves took the opportunity to flee their bondage. Escape to and service under British forces offered the promise of freedom for Virginia’s enslaved population. Early in the war the Royal Governor of Virginia John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, issued a proclamation offering “Freedom to All Indented Servts & Slaves (the Property of Rebels) that will repair to his majestys Standard–being able to bear Arms.”

The event illustrates the complexities and contradictions of the American Revolution, as well as changing definitions of freedom and liberty. In addition, the events surrounding the Savage illustrate the bravery of this group of individuals and their desire to escape from the harshness of their lives as slaves.

Read more about the H.M.S. Savage at the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.

Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington

The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington is a new digital history project that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. Entries focus on the totality of Washington’s life and experiences, while also covering the Mount Vernon Estate, its history, and preservation. The encyclopedia includes entries written by Mount Vernon staff and experts, as well as a team of more than thirty outside scholars of history and related fields. Periodically, encyclopedia entries will be highlighted on this blog.

Continue reading Encyclopedia Entry: H.M.S. Savage »

Category: Classroom Connections, Digital Encyclopedia, Mount Vernon, Slavery

February 20, 2013

Encyclopedia Entry: Phillis Wheatley

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Phillis Wheatley - Google Art Project

George Washington’s connection to enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley illustrates “a telling example of his moral complexity and capacity for humanitarian understanding,” argues Adam Meehan, a doctoral candidate in Literature at The University of Arizona. Wheatley was brought to Boston from West Africa at only seven years of age. Uncommon to the practices of the time, Wheatley was formally educated, tutored by her owners’ daughter in subjects such as Greek, Latin and poetry. At just twelve years old, Wheatley began writing poetry and her works became well-known by the time she was eighteen.

In December of 1775, soon after his appointment to lead the Continental Army, Washington received a letter from Wheatley that included an ode written in his honor. The poem must have struck Washington as it prompted the only known letter that he wrote to a slave. In his letter, Washington extended an invitation for Wheatley to meet at his Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters.

Read more about Phillis Wheatley and George Washington at the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.

Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington

The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington is a new digital history project that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. Entries focus on the totality of Washington’s life and experiences, while also covering the Mount Vernon Estate, its history, and preservation. The encyclopedia includes entries written by Mount Vernon staff and experts, as well as a team of more than thirty outside scholars of history and related fields. Periodically, encyclopedia entries will be highlighted on this blog. Continue reading Encyclopedia Entry: Phillis Wheatley »

Category: Classroom Connections, Digital Encyclopedia, Slavery

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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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