Sara in Colonial Virginia

A first-year student majoring in English and public relations, Sara is a Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program. During spring 2014, she is enrolled in the Honors history class “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” The class traveled to Virginia during spring break, with visits to Alexandria, Colonial Williamsburg, Washington, Charlottesville and the plantations of George Washington (Mount Vernon), Thomas Jefferson (Monticello), and James Madison (Montpelier).

Many of the photos on this blog were taken by Lucy, a first-year Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in biology.

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Life at Mount Vernon, with slavery

I don’t think any of us were terribly delighted at the early morning departure, but somehow, my classmates and I managed to be packed and in the hotel lobby by eight o’clock the next morning. We piled into the van, and eventually we found ourselves parked in the back of the Mount Vernon parking lot. The wind whipped through our jackets, causing everyone to huddle together to avoid the cold. At nine, the gates swung aside, and we were swept into the grounds along with the enormous crowd of Washington admirers.

At the entrance to Mount Vernon

At the entrance to Mount Vernon

Inside, the guides shuffled us into the main house, room by room. The guides were extremely robotic, but the house was definitely a sight to see. The tour took us through his elegant first-floor dining area. The tour led us upstairs, where we saw the General’s own bedroom. It was simple, but elegant, and as I stared at the white bedspread, the guide told us how Washington died there and his wife refused to sleep in the room after he passed. It was incredible to be standing where Washington stood — and died.

At Mount Vernon

At Mount Vernon

After touring the house, our class split up to tour the grounds as we pleased. Hope, Kelly, Lucy, the guys and I decided to check out the tomb and the slave memorial. Our first stop would be the tomb itself. Originally, Washington’s family was buried in the Old Tomb, but George and Martha were laid to rest in a new tomb, as per the General’s wishes in his will. It was beautifully constructed, giving off the perfect militaristic aura. Underneath a beautiful brick structure and behind tall iron-wrought gates lay two concrete coffins for both George and Martha.

Right next to the tomb, we saw the path to the slave memorial. It wasn’t much, but there was a circle of bushes around a marble plaque-tower thing commemorating Washington’s slaves. The date on the plaque caught my attention: it was dedicated September 21, 1983. Talk about late! Seeing that plaque really emphasized how little attention slaves received, for the longest time. Even the family of the great George Washington didn’t care to memorialize the people who made his plantation work. We didn’t really spend much time at the slave memorial because there wasn’t much to look at. I will admit, this caught me by surprise, as naive as it sounds. Even all these years later, the subject of slavery is so incredibly taboo-ed. If it’s not forbidden, it’s ignored entirely by most tour guides and historians. How disheartening, I thought!

After lunch, our class split up yet again to see the areas that we had missed. Some of us went down to the re-created blacksmith’s shop, but on our way, we ran into a volunteer dressed in traditional colonial garb. I stopped to talk to her, and Lucy, Andrew, and Hope joined me. She told us that a special guest was on the way, and sure enough, no sooner than the words had left her mouth, we turned to see an elegant older lady ambling up the path — our guest had arrived!

Lady Martha Washington was short, plump, and beautiful, with her crimson dress and matching jewelry that gleamed as brightly as her silver hair. Ever graceful and charming, she carried on light conversation with us, complimenting my earrings and telling us about her daily life while the volunteer fumbled with Lucy’s camera. Of course, she was an actor, but she did such a wonderful job — it felt as if we had traveled back in time!

With Martha Washington

With Martha Washington

We ended our conversation with Lady Washington fairly quickly, as she had to set up for a program for that afternoon, and made our way to the blacksmith shop. Inside, there was a lady who could explain everything, while a (white) man did the actual blacksmithing. I was able to ask her a few questions to gain some insight into Washington’s life:

Me: So, did the slaves do most of the smith-ing, or did Washington hire a white man?
Lady: His first smith was a slave called Peter, and when he needed a new smith, he used a white Dutchman to train two new slaves.

Hmm. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, especially since a white man was portrayed as the blacksmith in the reenactment. Perhaps the people of Mount Vernon simply disregarded the historical aspects of that. Yes, it may be less than “politically correct” to require a black actor to be the blacksmith. But it would have been more historically accurate, and it would have also let visitors see what Washington did, which was have a slave whose main purpose was to make tools for the plantation. That would have been the historic way to do things.

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