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The Forgotten History of an American Shrine

by Scott E. Casper

Pub Date: Feb. 4th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8090-8414-2
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A historian celebrates the lives of African-Americans who made George Washington’s home—their home and workplace, as well—into an American Mecca.

How is it that the name of a woman who lived longer at Mount Vernon than Martha Washington appears nowhere on those hallowed grounds? Although Washington’s will famously freed his slaves, that act did not end slavery at Mount Vernon—not all slaves there belonged to him—nor did it extinguish a continuing African-American presence at a private home destined to become a sacred, public place. Unprepared to handle the hordes of visitors expecting to see the key to the Bastille or the great man’s tomb, a succession of family heirs also continually sold off surrounding property to hang on to the increasingly unproductive plantation. In 1858, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), leading the first nationwide historic preservation movement, purchased the grounds to prevent any further dilapidation and to restore Washington’s home to its former glory. The combined efforts of the slaves who worked the property—whose names are preserved and honored today at Mount Vernon—and the MVLA’s subsequent, celebrated fund-raising and supervision maintained Mount Vernon for posterity. Casper (History/Univ. of Nevada, Reno; Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, 1999, etc.) supplies the details of Sarah Johnson’s life—the estate’s American flag flew at half-mast to commemorate her death in 1920—and those of her family, friends and contemporaries. He recalls their daily routines, explains how they handled a series of innovations—personal photography, steamboats, streetcars—that marked tourism through the years, demonstrates how they interpreted the shrine to generations of visitors and shows how they were misinterpreted by the crowds who visited the famous Potomac site. Casper refuses to dodge the problematic issues posed by Mount Vernon for African-Americans, addressing them squarely as he honors the service of those whom history has forgotten.

An unexpected, revealing look at an enduring and complex national symbol through the lives of those who knew it best.