The study of Washington’s ownership of people reveals the tragedy and inhumanity of a slave-based economy. The enslaved individuals he exercised power over at Mount Vernon lacked basic human freedoms, but built families and communities that lasted for generations. Primary source documents show that George Washington came to question the institution of slavery over his lifetime, and struggled with the discordance between the world he grew up in and the principles that would come to define his public leadership. Discussions about the challenges of teaching complex legacies (of founders like Washington), the impacts of those legacies, the history of race and slavery, and the relevance for students today will thread throughout the program.
Participants will explore Washington’s conflict between publicly avoiding the issue of slavery in fear that the fragile nation might tear apart and his evolution to his own last will and testament, when he freed the men, women, and children he owned. Investigation into individual narratives of those like William Lee, Priscilla, Hercules, or Caroline Branham who were enslaved at Mount Vernon will honor their lives and aid in a fuller understanding of the past.
Participants will investigate the spaces throughout the Estate and material culture within Mount Vernon's primary source collections to examine of the lives and agency of those who were enslaved, and whose stories helped shape the 18th century intertwined with the biography of George Washington as a political, military, and symbolic figure of the same era.