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George Washington and Slavery: Chronology

Sun, 11/11/2007

Chronology of Slavery at Mount Vernon

•    1743 - at the age of 11, George Washington inherits ten slaves.
•    1754 - George Washington inherits eight slaves (four adults, four children) from his brother’s estate. Washington moves to Mount Vernon.
•    1754-1758 - Washington purchases at least eight slaves.
•    1759 - George Washington marries Martha Custis who initially brings to Mount Vernon 11 slaves, increasing the population to 50.
•    1759-1772 - Washington purchases at least 42 slaves.
•    1775-1787 - during the Revolutionary War, George Washington resolves never to buy or sell another slave.  His slave population continues to grow naturally, as he also refused to separate families.
•    1786 - the earliest complete census of Mount Vernon slaves is conducted and lists 216 men, women, and children. One hundred five belong to George Washington and 111 belong to the estate of Mrs. Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis.
•    1799 - in July, Washington drafts a second inventory in preparation of freeing his slaves in his will (Virginia law dictated that the slaves belonging to the Custis estate by divided among Mrs. Washington’s four grandchildren).  Listed were 316 slaves, with 123 belonging to George Washington.  
•    1799 - in December, George Washington dies.  Three hundred sixteen slaves were living at Mount Vernon. Approximately 42% were too young or too old to work, but they were provided for by the estate.
•    1801 - on January 1, George Washington’s 123 slaves are freed.  Detailed instructions were left in his will for the care and support of the newly freed people, and records indicate that some lived on at Mount Vernon as pensioners until the 1830’s.
Slavery at Mount Vernon
•    Mount Vernon slaves lived and worked in six locations: the five farms which made up Washington’s 8,000-acre plantation, and the Gristmill, located three miles from the Mansion.
•    Many slaves were field hands, with much of this labor done by women.  Others were skilled in trades such as carpentry, masonry, and blacksmithing.  House slaves included cooks, butlers, and personal valets and maids.

Washington and Slavery

•    George Washington was born into a society that accepted slavery.
•    After fighting for freedom in the Revolutionary War, Washington’s opinion of slavery changed, and he personally resolved never to buy or sell another slave.
•    As president, Washington looked into the possibility of selling land to raise the funds that would free the slaves held by the Custis estate. Washington was unsuccessful in this attempt because he could not find buyers for his western lands. If he had raised the funds to free the slaves, he would have been required to get permission from the Custis estate as well as meet the monetary requirements.
•    George Washington wrote to Lawrence Lewis in 1797: “I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see a policy of gradual abolition of slavery.”
•    In his will, George Washington freed his slaves and left detailed instructions for their care and support.
Slave Memorial and Burial Ground at Mount Vernon
•    Located 50 yards southwest of George Washington’s tomb.
•    Known to have been a cemetery for slaves and free blacks who worked for the Washington family. 
•    Graves are unmarked; identities and numbers of those buried are largely unknown.  William Lee, George Washington’s personal servant during the Revolutionary War is known to be buried there.  He was freed in 1801 and died in 1828. 
•    1929 - a flat tablet of Georgian marble was placed by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.  Inscription reads: 

“In memory of the many faithful colored Servants of the Washington family buried at Mount Vernon from 1760 to 1860/their unidentified graves surround this spot/1929.”

•    1983 – a granite column, atop three concentric circles, with the words Faith, Hope, and Love on the circles, was designed by Howard University architecture students. Inscription reads:

“In memory of the Afro-Americans who served as slaves at Mount Vernon/ This monument marking their burial ground/Dedication September 21, 1983/Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.” 

Educational and Public Programs

•    An annual Slave Commemoration Ceremony is held in September (this year, September 22, 2007). Visitors can participate in a moving program honoring the slaves who lived and worked at the Estate. A wreathlaying ceremony at Mount Vernon’s Slave Memorial, inspirational readings and choral performances are included in the commemoration, which is co-sponsored by The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and Black Women United for Action.
•    The Slave Life Tour at Mount Vernon is a 30-minute guided walking tour that highlights the lives and contributions of the African-Americans who built and operated the plantation home of George and Martha Washington. The tour is offered daily at 10:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. from April 1 to October 31.
•    During Black History Month, Mount Vernon interpreters stationed at the Slave Quarters provide in-depth information about the slaves who lived and worked at Mount Vernon. A wreathlaying occurs daily at the Slave Memorial site at noon.
•    “The Dilemma of Slavery” gallery in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center features a History Channel video with Mount Vernon slave descendants and slave scholars discussing questions chosen by visitors from an interactive rail: Was George Washington good to his slaves?  What was it like to be a slave at Mount Vernon?  Why did George Washington wait until after his death to free his slaves? What was the legacy of Washington’s decision to free his slaves? An audio recitation of individual slaves’ names and the tasks they carried out at Mount Vernon serves as an accompaniment to portraits and text panels. Original tools introduce visitors to the personal stories of some of the enslaved people who worked at Mount Vernon. The evolution of Washington’s views on slavery and his increasing awareness that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the republic is revealed by a timeline.  Nearby, an interactive area shows the annual rations of clothing and the daily ration of food given to slaves at Mount Vernon.
•    Mount Vernon has produced curriculum materials on George Washington and slavery for students and teachers at the elementary and high school levels. Published in collaboration with Jackdaws Publications and Cobblestone Magazine, these materials have received high praise from teachers.
•    In May 2007, a 45-minute program called “Slavery at Mount Vernon” was broadcast to more than 13,000 schools nationwide in our new Distance Learning Classroom, reaching an audience of almost 8 million students.  The program featured panelists, including scholars and slave descendants, who examine the lives of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon. “Slavery at Mount Vernon” was filmed in cooperation with Fairfax County Public Schools, and is available by DVD.