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Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon

February 2024
6min read

On January 27, 1920, the American flag at Mount Vernon flew at half-  mast, in memory of a black woman. Visitors that Tuesday would never  have guessed whom it honored: a former slave, who had lived long ago  in one of the little whitewashed houses to the right of George Washington's mansion. They could easily mistake the lowered Stars and Stripes for a perpetual tribute to the Father of His Country, entombed  a few hundred yards away. The superintendent who ordered the gesture that day meant no statement about racial equality. In his words,  the flag commemorated a "faithful ex-servant of M.V," a woman who  had earned respect by knowing her place.   Thirty years earlier nobody knew Mount Vernon better than Sarah  Johnson. She had lived there almost half a century by then, longer than  even Martha Washington had. Born to a teenage mother in 1844,  Sarah grew up surrounded by kin, celebrated the births of new siblings  and cousins, grieved for relatives sold away. She trained from child-  hood for a lifetime of domestic service, but not the one she got. After  the Civil War she returned to Mount Vernon as a wife, a mother, and  an employee of America's pioneer association for historic preservation.  Washing, cooking, and tending the chickens, she drew upon lessons  from slavery days, now for a monthly wage and a public audience. Sarah  Johnson played a featured role in the Mount Vernon that visitors saw,  as she courteously sold them milk for five cents a glass. Behind the  scenes she won the confidence and the friendship of the wealthy white  women who owned the place and were restoring its eighteenth-century  appearance. Neither the visitors nor the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association knew much about Sarah's other world, a community off the historic site's two hundred acres. Sarah attended church, sent her son to  school, and enjoyed a network of friends and kinfolk in the black  neighborhood beyond Mount Vernon's fences. After she resigned her  position in 1892, she did not go far. She used her earnings to buy a  farm, four acres of the seventy-six hundred that had once belonged to  George Washington. 

Mount Vernon's flag remained at half-mast until noon on Wednesday, January 28, the day Sarah's black neighbors laid her to rest in their  cemetery four miles away. Only one Mount Vernon employee, a black  gardener in his mid-eighties, took time off to attend her funeral. By  1920 almost everyone else working there was white. Few of them had  known Sarah, whose final residence was a segregated nursing home  for the indigent in Washington, D.C. Nobody then at Mount Vernon  could have told visitors about the odyssey of Sarah's seventy-five years,  but visitors did not come to hear that story anyway. They had come for  George Washington's Mount Vernon, which evoked the Father of His  Country and his eighteenth-century world. Sarah Johnson's Mount  Vernon was being obliterated, a nineteenth-century place erased by  Jim Crow and historic preservation. 

On hundred and twenty winters earlier an entire nation had mourned  for George Washington. America' founding father died in his bed on  December 14, 1799, surrounded by his wife, three doctors, and several  slaves. His funeral procession at Mount Vernon numbered more than  two hundred people, beginning with military companies and ending  with a multitude that included his farm manager, his overseers, and  some of his slaves. Citi s and towns across the United States staged their  own reenactments of Washington's funeral. Their ministers preached  sermons on the life and character of America's departed hero. Their  citizens marched in processions of riderless horses, local dignitaries,  somber musicians, and pallbearers, everything except a corpse. Homage  to Washington endured long after the official mourning period ended  on what would have been his sixty-eighth birthday in February 1800.  His remains, interred in the family tomb overlooking the Potomac  River, became a pilgrimage shrine, an American Mecca or Westminster Abbey. Americans' tears moistened "the sod that presses upon his  bosom," one writer rhapsodized. Wandering the grounds and floor-  boards that Washington once trod, visitors imagined a world where  lime stood still? 

Time had not stopped for the people who still lived there, especially  the 316 slaves Washington had counted a few months before he died.  The people he owned outright, 123 in all, would soon win freedom. By  Washington's last will and testament, they were to be emancipated  upon Martha's death, the old and infirm among them clothed and fed  for as long as they lived, and the children without parents taught to  read and write and educated in "some useful occupation." Martha felt  great affection for many of these slaves but, Abigail Adams reported,  "did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their hands." Would people destined for freedom upon her death seize a chance to hasten  that event? After rumors of an attempted fire, Martha emancipated  them early, on New Year's Day 1801. Some of them remained at  or near Mount Vernon as paid workers or pensioners. Washington's  revolutionary-era body servant William Lee, Singled out in the will  for immediate freedom, became a minor celebrity, garrulous in his  reminiscences of the general. In 1835, after Washington's remains had  been moved from their original resting place to a new tomb uphill,  eleven black men were seen leveling the ground for a brick mausoleum  at the new site, while a black woman brought them food and water. All  of them owed their freedom to George Washington, either directly or  because he had freed their mothers. They said that they volunteered  their services on "this last melancholy occasion." They labored that day  for their liberator's memory, not for his kin.
The rest of George Washington's slaves were less fortunate, because they were not legally his. Most of them, or their forebears, had  belonged to Martha Washington' first husband. After she died in May  1802, they were divided among her four grandchildren. Some of these  "dower slaves" remained on Mount Vernon land. Martha's granddaughter Nelly Custis had married George's nephew Lawrence Lewis, who  inherited one of Washington's five Mount Vernon farms just two miles  from the mansion house. Her grandson Gorge Washington Parke  Custis built a mansion outside Alexandria, nine miles from Mount  Vernon, and his share of the dower slaves formed the basis of a black  community that persisted for generations at Arlington House, better  known today as the home of Custis' son-in-law Robert E. Lee. The  other dower slaves were taken farther away, to Washington, D.C., and  some were sold.

Over the next sixty years an entirely new community of African Americans peopled Mount Vernon. This book tells their story. The term  "Mount Vernon" referred to a diminishing estate because Washington  heirs to the mansion and tomb received successively less of the sur-  rounding acreage with each generation. George Washington bequeathed  about half his Mount Vernon land to his nephew Bushrod, but nobody to  work the farm or serve the household. Bushrod Washington brought to  Mount Vernon black families he had inherited from his own parents' estate, along with others he had purchased himself. After he died and his  estate was divided, fewer than a dozen of those slaves remained at  Mount Vernon. So the subsequent Washington heirs transplanted more  people there, including the teenage girl who became Sarah Johnson's  mother. Over two decades the community multiplied to more than  seventy-five men, women, and children. The Mount Vernon Ladies'  Association, which bought two hundred acres in 1860, hired some of  the e people when the Civil War ended. They returned as free people to  the place that had become their home, and the site of their enslavement,  only after George Washington died. 

These African Americans made history at Mount Vernon, in two  senses. For the thousands of people, overwhelmingly white, who sojourned there every year, they evoked and preserved George Washing-  ton's world-a past that neither they nor their ancestors had known  in that place. Visitors imagined Mount Vernon as an oasis of constancy amid disquieting national change. Whether they carne overland  through forests and across unbridged brooks or took the steamboat  down the Potomac, travelers put metaphorical as well as physical distance between their ordinary liv s an I their hallowed destination.  Mount Vernon was a national shrine, site of reverent pilgrimage. It  seemed also a self-contained universe, a microcosm of a mythic harmonious, preindustrial America where Washington's guiding hand  benevolently governed the domestic and agricultural spheres. By their  words and by their very presence, black slaves before the Civil War and  black employees after it contributed to the impression that Mount Vernon belonged to the past. Rather than challenge visitors' most common  misconception, that they or their parents had belonged to George  Washington, they became the keepers of his tomb and memory and earned coins and accolades for their borrowed reminiscences  Paradoxically, Sarah Johnson and her community also made history by forging distinctly nineteenth-century lives at this supposedly  eighteenth-century place. The kin networks transplanted there in the early 1800s persisted for three generations on the hallowed grounds  and in the surrounding black neighborhood, a local world of social and  economic relations that travelers rarely saw. Mount Vernon's African  Americans were thoroughly immersed in the same contemporary issues  that visitors came to escape: commercial speculation; labor unrest; the  conflict over slavery; black people's quest for equality and opportunity.  Their Mount Vernon was no island, enclosed by the fences around the  historic area. To people who had grown up on the Washingtons' plantation, even the term "Mount Vernon" denoted something different from  the diminished area the visitor and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association knew. African Americans' neighborhood stretch d across the  surrounding countryside, on off the main roads, all the way to  Alexandria. Their Mount Vernon was embedded at once in a fabled national geography and a local terrain of everyday life, in an imagined,  fixed past and an all-too-real changeable present. In the words of an  1879 travel book, Mount Vernon was "Forever new, yet forever old.'  The Flag that Flew for Sarah Johnson in 1920 marked the end of an  era that had taken a century to forge and a few decades to dismantle.  At the same time, the star-spangled banner, like Mount Vernon itself,  symbolized an enduring mythic national identity, a set of stories about  national origins and heroes, rooted in the eighteenth-century past even  if the stars had multiplied from thirteen to forty-eight. The history of  Sarah Johnson' Mount Vernon belies the national imagination, but it  is a story no less American. It is a story not just of Washingtons but also  of black people named Parker and Smith, Johnson and Ford. It is the  sort of story Sarah and her contemporaries might have told their  friends and their children, not the one the tourists usually heard. 

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