Remembering the slaves at Mount Vernon

Emotions: `Anyone who could survive those times in American history deserves to be honored,' one descendant says.


MOUNT VERNON, Va. - Exactly 200 years after Martha Washington freed George Washington's slaves, descendants of the slaves gathered to share their ancestors' stories with tourists at the first president's Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon.

President Washington, born into a colony that embraced slavery, came to doubt the ethics of the practice and ordered in his will that his personal slaves be freed upon his widow's death. But she did not wait, granting 123 of the slaves freedom on Jan. 1, 1801, two years after Washington died. She died a year later.

"We are here today to stand up and let people know that theirs is a critical legacy," said Rohulaman Quander, a resident of the District of Columbia and a descendant of a Mount Vernon slave, Suckey Bay.

"What these people did on a daily basis was critically important, so Washington could go and run the country," Quander said. "Washington knew the slaves back at the plantation were keeping things under control."

There were 316 slaves at Mount Vernon when the Washingtons lived there, but not all were freed, because slaves that Mrs. Washington had inherited from her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, were partly owned by the children of that marriage. Only Washington's personal slaves were emancipated, and the Washingtons' actions left a trail of split families and destroyed marriages among the slaves.

But several descendants at the recent tribute appeared interested only in remembering the slaves that they said helped build a nation, and not to place blame on the Washingtons.

Hundreds of visitors listened to presentations by descendants and the plantation's curators at Mount Vernon.

"Anyone who could survive those times in American history deserves to be honored," said Zsun-nee Kimball Matema of Silver Spring, a descendant of Martha Washington's personal maid, Caroline Branham. "That is why I am here today."

Fearing the outrage of slavery supporters, Washington never publicly supported abolition, but privately, he expressed concern.

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