Reflections on Slavery at Mount


Reflections on Slavery at Mount Vernon

When I first went to Mount Vernon some years ago, slavery was unapologetically acknowleged. There was nothing made of it, nor was it denied. It was simply a non-issue. There were no displays, and if slave's names were known, nothing much was done with the information.

Today it is quite different. There is a great deal of information about slaves and discussion of slaves as one tours the plantation. This is true in nearly all the great houses of the south.

Today, it was brought home to me powerfully as I toured the grounds. I saw an African-American family, Mom, Dad, three kids, walking behind the greenhouse where there is a long row of exhibits that discuss aspects of slaves lives--maintaining the fires for the greenhouse, shoe-menders and maker, and a room with ten bunk-beds representing the lodging of the slaves. Suddenly, I realized that these people before me, ordinary in every respect, could not have the same access to Mount Vernon that I had (and I consider this revelation a gracious gift from God). Surely, the African American family probably recognized that this was the house of the Man who jump-started the republic in which we now live--not so much in deed but in example. But the awful reality was that when they looked into these rooms it was possible that some distant ancestor occupied them. The whole crushing weight of the reality of slavery visited me for a moment. I visit Mount Vernon and see a monument to a man who helped to make a nation. Others may visit this same home and see only another link in a chain of oppression. They may be reminded that great-great-great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers were regarded as another person's property.

At Woodlawn Plantation the lady giving the tour informed us, "At the age of 12 or so, each of the children of the house were given a slave of the same age who accompanied them through life." What an utterly appalling notion. I do not convict these people of the past for not breaking out of their own bondage of time and ignorance; however, if I were one whose ancestors served on these plantations, might I not feel otherwise?

These questions are hard questions to answer, but I'm glad to see that they are finally being asked.

At the time of Washington's death he owned 317 PEOPLE. The law observed his "right" to control the lives of 317 individuals. To Washington's tremendous credit, he released his slaves in his will (but only upon Martha's death). In addition he set aside funds to care for the elderly among his slaves and for the education of the young. In a quotation of 1786, Washington wrote, "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for [its] abolition." A laudable sentiment that met with an unfortunate silence. I strongly recommend the chapter of "Founding Brothers" titled "The Silence."

I don't know what to make of this ramble except to say that God in His providence granted me a moment today to realize what the reality of slavery COULD mean even today to some people. I do not know that this could accurately represent anyone's thoughts but my own, but we all carry, to some extent, a weight of the past. I exult in all things colonial and Revolutionary, and I am dragged down by all things related to the WoNA or to give it a name less controversial and incendiary, the War Between the States. (And no, I won't spell out the acronym--them as know, know, elsewise it isn't important.) The seeds for said war were set in the earliest times and the necessity for the eradication of the great evil of slavery (not the fullness of the reason for the war) undeniable. However, when I am at Chancellorsburg, or even driving by the sign that announced the exit to the Cold Harbor Battlefield, I feel a tremendous sense of sadness. I tend to think that many are moved in similar ways by different things. And it seems that we do an injustice not to recognize that a sizable minority of this great country have access only to this memories and hints of the great indignity foisted on one people by another. Not all, by any means, and this by no means rationalizes any violence committed in the name of past injustices or excused on that basis. However, I am not privy to the powerful feelings that could be conjured up in thinking simply of family stories.

My prayer is that a great many can take away from such places a similar sense of the past, and a deep understanding of some of the sorrow, horror, and anger that must fill many. I pray for a continued understanding and compassion when it comes time for me to tell my son about these things. I pray that they light the way for the future--understanding, compassion, sympathy, and a willingness to listen to stories without judging. There is no question in my mind that we have become a people more aware of injustice and more aware of the indignities suffered by many. May God use each of us as a vehicle of understanding and solidarity. May we acknowledge the sins of the past and strive to help heal the wound of psyche that must still exist. May we learn how to open the doors of communication without opening the sluice gates of useless guilt-induction and guilt-raking. As a loving people, we must be ever more welcome to stories that differ from our own and be willing to make them part of the great tapestry of this nation.

I look to Mount Vernon and other exhibits that feature the lives of slaves, and I rejoice in these good fruits of "multiculturalism." For a very long time this voice was silent, and a large minority of people in the United States lived with an unspoken, and sometimes largely denied history. Multiculturalism, despite its ridiculous excesses, forced this door open, and we have been enriched in our understanding as a result.

We do well to take steps to make this story known--not for the sake of guilt, but for the sake of the future--that it may never take root in any form in our country today. Praise God for His eternal mercies--"He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree." We should know the names and the places of the Slaves of Mount Vernon. We should still love and respect Washington for all that he was and all that his legacy left to us. But we should also recognize his limitations as a person and realize that people worked, and lived, and died at his word alone. I do not know if anyone ever was whipped or killed at his command. I hope not. But I do know that even if it did not happen, the circumstances of the time would have allowed for it, and that is something that must never happen again in any way, shape, or form.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 29, 2002 3:38 PM.

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