The inscription atop the 1983 Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon
The Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon was designed by students attending the architectural school at Howard University. It was dedicated and opened to the public on September 21, 1983. A gray, truncated, granite column which represents “life unfinished” is the center of three concentric brick circles. The three steps leading up to the column are inscribed, respectively, “Faith,” “Hope” and “Love” – the virtues that sustained those living in bondage.
The memorial is located approximately 50 yards southwest of George and Martha Washington's tomb, on a bluff above the Potomac River. This sacred ground was used as a cemetery for slaves and a few free blacks who worked at Mount Vernon in the 18th and 19th centuries. Local folklore/tradition says that the bodies were buried with their feet towards the east (the river), symbolizing their desire to return to Africa.
The graves were either unmarked or the markings did not survive, and the identities and numbers of those buried remain largely unknown. Among those thought to be buried at the site are William Lee, George Washington’s personal servant during the Revolutionary War, and West Ford, who worked as a manager for the Washington families who lived at Mount Vernon after Martha Washington’s death in 1802. Both Lee and Ford were “free blacks” at the time of their deaths.
1929 marker noting the location of the slave cemetery at Mount Vernon (Rob Shenk)
The Slave Memorial stands adjacent to the Association’s 1929 marker noting the site of the 200-year old slave burial ground, which 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.” Despite the importance of this official recognition, the area received little attention from the visiting public, as it was located off the beaten path within the historic site. The burial ground lay unattended and forgotten in dense underbrush for years thereafter.
In 1982, a small group searching for information regarding slave burial sites stumbled upon the grave marker. Inspired by their discovery, Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam wrote a column in 1983 calling for the slave burial ground to receive much more interpretation as a vital part of George Washington’s estate. Soon a group of influential citizens began a concerted effort to honor the slaves of Mount Vernon and other colonial plantations.
Simple and moving in its design, the Slave Memorial enhances Mount Vernon’s interpretation of slavery at George Washington’s estate. When he was 11, Washington inherited 10 slaves from his father, and eventually owned as many as 316 during Mount Vernon’s peak of activity. Over a period of several years, Washington actually changed his mind about slavery, declaring in 1786 that he hoped a plan would be adopted by which “slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.” When Washington died in 1799, his will stated that all slaves under his ownership were to be freed. Of the 123 slaves from Mount Vernon who were freed after his death, a number of them were provided for while staying on the plantation.
Dedication ceremony at the Mount Vernon Slave Memorial (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Black Women United for Action, in researching the contributions of African-Americans to the history of Fairfax County, Virginia, realized that very few people in the county and elsewhere knew of the existence of the Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon. Because it is a permanent tribute to enslaved Africans, whose skills, talents, and spiritual strengths were an integral part of the formation of our nation, Black Women United for Action determined to focus national attention on this monument. As a result, Black Women United for Action and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association have joined efforts in an annual commemoration of the Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon.