After George Washington’s death, Mount Vernon’s enslaved community was divided several times over.

The first division occurred when Martha Washington chose to free her late husband’s slaves early, on January 1, 1801. She may have feared for her safety in a situation where the freedom of so many depended on her death. Like her husband, Martha lacked the legal authority to free the Custis slaves, many of whom watched their spouses and relatives go free.

The second division occurred after Martha Washington died on May 22, 1802. The enslaved people owned by the Custis estate—numbering about 150—were dispersed to her four grandchildren. Legally considered property, enslaved people had no control over their destination. Once again, many families were separated.

"To emancipate [my slaves] during [my wife’s] life, would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations…"

-George Washington's Will, 1799

Who were the Custis heirs?

The Custis heirs were the four children of John (Jacky) Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s son from her first marriage, who had died in 1781 at age 26. George and Martha Washington had helped raise the children after their father’s death. All four had close relationships with their grandmother and adopted grandfather and spent considerable time at Mount Vernon. As adults, they married and established their own estates in Virginia and the District of Columbia—the ultimate destinations of the enslaved people they inherited.

Mapping Mount Vernon’s Enslaved Community

Many of the enslaved people freed in George Washington’s will settled in free African American communities near Mount Vernon. Those owned by the Custis estate were dispersed to the homes of Martha Washington’s four grandchildren in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Many families were divided in this process. In some cases, relatives continued to live near each other. But many were separated by great distances, making visits difficult—if not impossible.

The Custis Inheritance

When Martha Washington died in 1802, her grandchildren inherited property in the form of land, household objects, and enslaved people. A set of four lists records the division of the Custis slaves among Martha Washington’s three granddaughters and her grandson. Each enslaved person was assigned a monetary value. The strike-throughs and edits suggest this document may be a draft created as the grandchildren divided the enslaved community into four equal lots. The heirs generally kept young children with their mothers, but few families remained intact.

Enslaved Families

The people who remained enslaved on the estates of the Custis heirs continued to show resilience as they faced a future they did not control. Some gained their freedom in the decades after Washington’s death. Others remained in bondage until the Civil War.

Charles and Maria Syphax

Charles Syphax was the son of an enslaved woman at Mount Vernon and a free black preacher. Inherited by George Washington Parke Custis in 1802, he oversaw the dining room at Arlington House. In 1826, Syphax married Maria Carter, the daughter of a Mount Vernon slave named Arianna. According to Syphax family tradition, Maria’s father was George Washington Parke Custis.

Shortly after Charles and Maria married, Custis made arrangements to free Maria. He also gave her a 17-acre plot on his Arlington plantation, where she and her family lived as free people. The Syphaxes would go on to have 10 children, many of whom became leaders in the local community. Their son William Syphax served as Chief Messenger for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Through William’s efforts, his mother was able to retain the rights to her Arlington property when the U.S. government confiscated Custis’s estate after the Civil War.

Kitty

Kitty, an enslaved milkmaid and spinner at Mansion House Farm, was deeply affected by George and Martha Washington’s death. Kitty’s husband, Isaac, Mount Vernon’s head carpenter, was owned by George Washington and thus received his freedom in 1801. Because Kitty was a dower slave, her nine daughters and seven grandchildren all belonged to the Custis estate and remained enslaved. In 1802 the family was separated again. After Martha Washington’s death, Kitty and her children were dispersed among Martha’s four grandchildren.

Learn More About Kitty

Delphy Judge and William Costin

Lithograph of William Costin, by Charles Fenderick, ca. 1841, after Samuel M. Charles. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs DivisionPhiladelphia (Delphy) Judge was an enslaved spinner at Mansion House Farm and the younger sister of Ona Judge (Martha Washington’s personal maid who escaped in 1796). After being inherited by Eliza Parke Custis Law in 1802, Delphy Judge married William Costin, a free black man. Law’s husband Thomas freed Judge and her two children in 1807.

The family lived in Washington, D.C., where William Costin worked as a messenger for the Bank of Washington for 24 years and became a well-known figure in the city. When he died, former president John Quincy Adams declared, “The late William Costin, though he was not white, was as much respected as any man in the District.” Their daughter Louisa Parke Costin founded and ran a school for African American children on Capitol Hill from 1823 to 1831.

Lithograph of William Costin, by Charles Fenderick, ca. 1841, after Samuel M. Charles. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Tom

This ambrotype (ca. 1861-65) depicts Tom, who was enslaved at Mount Vernon and inherited by the Peter family in 1802. During the Civil War, Tom ran away from the Peter home in Maryland and found refuge with a group of abolitionists, who had this image taken.

Sall Twine and Barbara Cole

Sall Twine, an enslaved field worker at Mount Vernon’s Dogue Run Farm, was inherited by Martha Parke Custis Peter in 1802. Twine was likely sent to work at the Peters’ plantation in Seneca, Maryland. Her young daughter Barbary was assigned to work at the family’s city residence, which after 1816 was Tudor Place in Georgetown (now part of Washington, D.C.).

Barbary, later known as Barbara Cole, married an enslaved man from a different household in Georgetown. Her daughter Hannah served as a nanny to Martha Peter’s youngest daughters. Other members of their family may have worked at the Peter family quarry in Maryland, which supplied sandstone to build the Smithsonian Institution’s original building, now known as the “Castle.”

Freed People from Mount Vernon

After being emancipated in 1801, many former Mount Vernon slaves settled in free communities near Mount Vernon and in Alexandria.

Learn More

The content on this page was adapted from Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2016–2020.

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