Marfé Ferguson Delano: I live a few miles up the road from Mount Vernon. One of my friends told me she was thinking about writing a historical fiction novel based on Charlotte, a slave owned by the Washingtons. I thought that was really interesting. I didn’t know we had details [of slaves] available to us. This set off my nonfiction radar; I thought there would be interesting stories to explore. Once I started doing the research I became engrossed by the enslaved people and by Washington as a slave owner.
About 6 or 7 years, but other things intervened [during the project]. I drew up a proposal to send to my editor and she really liked the idea. But she asked if first I would write a children’s book about global warming for National Geographic, so that project came in between. Then I went back to Master George’s People and spent a lot of time researching while working on a couple of other projects. It’s the kind of project I am really glad I had a number of years in which to steep myself in the subject matter. Mary Thompson (Research Historian at Mount Vernon) was a wonderful resource. She helped point me toward a number of helpful sources. My original idea was that the book would be more about what life was like as a slave of Washington, but I realized I also had to weave in Washington’s attitude towards slavery.
Several things surprised me. For example, I was surprised to learn that when Martha married George and moved to Mount Vernon, her very young children brought their own personal slaves, who were children themselves. The fact that young children were being plucked from their own families to take care of another family blew me away. I was surprised by the relative freedom of movement [of slaves]; they could go to Alexandria to sell produce they had in their garden and could sell what they grew to their master.
I was also surprised by Washington’s attitude as a young man towards slavery, especially when he participated in the raffle. (A raffle was held in Williamsburg, VA to raise money to pay the debts of Bernard Moore; gamblers participated to win valuable prizes, such as slaves). [This] was a real low point - it shows how much his attitude and conscience developed over time.
A few things. I’d like them to see that the story of the founding of America, in terms of George Washington and other Founding Fathers, is more complicated than depicted in text books. I’d like them to take away the sense that people that we honor as heroes are human and have imperfections. We can honor them for their accomplishments and still look at them with a clear eye about their failings. I’d also like readers to take away a sense of how much the enslaved people at Mount Vernon contributed to Washington’s success as a leader. Without them doing the work, it wouldn’t have been possible for Washington to become a leader. Kids are smart, they can understand stories on multiple levels. I wanted this book to add layers to the story.
Author Marfé Ferguson Delano lives in Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles up the road from Mount Vernon. In addition to Master George’s People, Marfé’s nonfiction books for children include award-winning biographies of Thomas Edison (Inventing the Future), Albert Einstein (Genius) and Annie Sullivan (Helen's Eyes), and Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World, which won the 2010 Green Earth Book Award.
For more information, please visit www.marfebooks.com.