How George Washington Treated His Slaves. (Diaspora)

By Jere-Malanda, Regina | New African, May 2001 | Go to article overview

How George Washington Treated His Slaves. (Diaspora)


Jere-Malanda, Regina, New African


George Washington, America's first and most revered president, had his feet in both slavery and his highly acclaimed fight for freedom and justice for all. A bag of contradictions? Or shame? No wonder the world media has chosen to ignore the story. But welcome to George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia. Your tour guide today is our own irrepressible Regina Jere-Malanda.

At the age of 11, George Washington was already a slave-owner, having inherited 11 slaves and 500 acres of land from his father's will. Eleven years later (at 22), he owned a total of 36 slaves, a dozen of whom were from his uncle, Lawrence Washington, willed to him following the death of both Lawrence's infant daughter and widow (the would-have-been heirs).

By the time he was inaugurated the first president of America in 1789, George Washington was not only the man of his century with a reputation of impeccable honour and integrity, but also the man who held in bondage over 300 slaves, who, after his death (except for one), received their freedom only after his wife, Martha, had died, according to Washington's will (see box onp45).

This is the story most journalists, particularly in the West, would probably not delve too deep into, as it waters down the adulation that has been piled on the father of American liberty.

But everybody, particularly an African visiting Mount Vernon today, cannot help but feel (even see) the master/slave atmosphere that characterised 18th century life at the Mount Vernon Estate.

After a fascinating, memorable and impressively narrated tour of where George Washington, lived and how, what and where he ate and entertained his fellow high profile citizens; his private study; and most poignantly the bedroom and bed on which he died (all places still in, or restored to, their original state), it would not be surprising that some visitors may not notice that even in death and hundreds of years later, George Washington is still the Master at Mount Vernon and his slaves are still just that -- slaves.

Downhill to the left of the mansion house is the tomb where George Washington, his wife and other family members are gracefully interred, having been moved from another tomb within the estate which fell into a state of disrepair.

Just a few metres down from where the Master lies, is what is referred to as the Slave Burial Area. This ground is where it is presumed that the over 300 faithful servants that were the lifeline of Mount Vernon may have buried each other.

There is no evidence of any grave, no burial records, not even those of Washington's trusted servant, Billy Lee, the only slave that the Master's will said could be freed upon his death.

Yet the Master personally wrote and kept in descriptive detail lists of all his slaves, On one list, he describes one slave as "a good cutter and mover and can do any other work although defective in shape from his infancy."

Another one was said to be "a good working woman, notwithstanding her age". Yet another, called Lucy, is described on another list as "lame or pretends to be so, occasioned by rheumatic pains, but is a good knitter."

George Washington kept slaves as young as one-year-old.

Our tour

I was in a group of 15 other journalists when I visited Mount Vernon recently. I wondered during the tour if any of my colleagues felt the same emotions about the place, as I did.

When I saw them move on quickly from the slave burial area, to the next attraction, I knew they did not. I let them go ahead and stayed behind to ponder and imagine what was going on among the souls under the ground on which I was standing.

Right opposite, the Master's tomb looked imposingly dominant while the ground I stood on felt less significant in comparison. Once a Master always a Master, even if you became the walking versions of freedom, liberty and democracy themselves! …

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