Now the whole presidential story

Estates such as Mount Vernon reconstruct a neglected part of the past - slave cabins

September 30, 2007|By Tina Marie Macias

MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- The homes of the nation's first presidents receive as much care and attention as any historic sites in the nation. Special societies raise money to preserve and protect them. Researchers dote on the finest points of their architecture and family heritage.

But until recent years, there was little focus on a painful reality in the history of several of the founding fathers: George Washington, who led the Colonial forces seeking freedom from the British; Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence proclaimed the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"; and James Madison, who wrote the Constitution "in order to ... secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," all owned slaves.

"How do you deal with the fact that Jefferson's a national hero, Madison and Washington were heroes, and they all had slaves?" said James Oliver Horton, a history professor at George Washington University. "Most people try to ignore it."

That is changing.

The most famous - and most visited - presidential home, Washington's Mount Vernon, has just added a piece of history that has long been known but, until now, was not really visible - a reconstructed slave cabin, similar to those that housed the slaves who worked the fields of its outlying farms.

The tiny cabin - with its crudely cut log exterior, rough pallet on the floor and bare loft - stands in stark contrast to Washington's 11,400-square-foot mansion five miles away, with its opulent furnishings, white-pillared veranda and vistas of the Potomac River.

Construction of the 16-by-14-foot dwelling was based in part on a 1908 photo of a dilapidated slave cabin, one of many that once dotted the 8,000-acre estate. In a letter written in 1798, a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon described "the huts of the Blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses," as "wretched" and "more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants."

But that jolt of despair, said Sheila Coates, president of Black Women United for Action, is what Mount Vernon needed. Before the dedication of the cabin Sept. 19, the only depiction of slave life at Mount Vernon was a dormitory-style brick structure reconstructed on the farm nearest the mansion. The original residence - part of the estate's greenhouse, which burned down in the mid-1800s - housed 97 house servants and craftsmen, the "elite" of the estate's 316 slaves.

"There are people who saw those slave quarters and would think, `Well, the slaves didn't have it so bad,'" said Coates, whose group had pushed for years for a realistic representation of how the field slaves lived.

The cabin interprets the lives of actual slaves on one of Mount Vernon's farms: a married couple, Slammin' Joe and Silla, and their six children. Inside are their rations, salted fish and two sacks of cornmeal; outside are a small vegetable garden and a chicken coop that they used to supplement their diet. "In order to fully understand what their lives were like, visitors must see how they lived," said Dennis J. Pogue, Mount Vernon's director of preservation.

Acknowledging slave ownership "is much more common than it was 20 years ago," he said. "It's still a topic that people would like us to deal with more."

Other presidential homes in Virginia are taking similar steps.

At Monticello, Jefferson's home near Charlottesville, communications director Wayne Mogielnicki said construction soon would begin on the slave cabins and workshops along Mulberry Row, an area near the main house where root cellars, thousands of artifacts and cabin foundations were excavated 30 years ago.

And there are promises of reconstructed slave quarters within the next decade at Montpelier, James Madison's home near Orange, Va.

Tina Marie Macias writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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