A tale of two Mount Vernons: How Washington’s estate separates his story from his slaves’Breaking News
tags: slavery, George Washington, Mount Vernon, presidential history
When George Washington designed Mount Vernon, he strategically placed walls, gardens and rows of trees to keep visitors from encountering the enslaved people who toiled behind the scenes to support his luxurious lifestyle. On two recent visits to the historic plantation, I found that approach is, unfortunately, still alive today. During the mansion tour and in the exhibits, slavery is barely mentioned. It wasn’t until I ferreted out a special exhibit and paid $10 extra for the “Enslaved People of Mount Vernon” tour — open to a maximum of only 50 people a day — that I got a full picture of what life was like on the estate.
On my first visit to Mount Vernon, I followed the route that most tourists seemed to take, via outdoor pathways to the president’s mansion. Along the way, I perused signs trumpeting Washington’s lesser-known accomplishments — as an architect, an entrepreneur and an experimental farmer. I’m sure he was a talented guy, but it was all a bit much — especially when we got to an outhouse that was also presented as evidence of his genius. “The attractive design exemplifies Washington’s interest in architecture,” a placard reads. (Sadly, I couldn’t find any explanation for why the privy had three toilet seats with no partitions between them, so I was left to speculate that our famously diligent first president liked to talk business while doing his business.)
There was a long line to get into the mansion, so I had plenty of time to admire Washington’s rolling lawn. “There’s no way he could have kept it looking this good, in a world before lawn mowers,” I said to a guide. “They did have lawn mowers,” she replied. “They were called goats.”
On my second trip to Mount Vernon, I got a much more convincing explanation. “This is imported grass from England, and it took the work of many slaves to keep it trimmed and to give it the rolling look of an English country estate,” explained the guide leading the slavery tour. Skilled gardeners cut the grass by hand with a scythe, and rolled the lawn at night to keep it flat, she said.
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