After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, the property passed to her late husband’s heirs.

Three generations of later Washington owners brought with them new communities of enslaved people. Slavery continued at Washington’s home until 1860, when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association took possession of the property.

Like their 18th-century predecessors, West Ford, Jim Mitchell, Sarah Johnson, and hundreds of others endured forced labor and separation from family members. But Mount Vernon was no typical plantation. Those enslaved here encountered a steady stream of tourists making pilgrimages to George Washington’s home. And as Mount Vernon’s 19th-century owners encountered financial pressures, their enslaved laborers often suffered the consequences.

Bushrod Washington

Bushrod Washington, MVLA.

Bushrod Washington, MVLA.

George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington was the first heir to take over Mount Vernon. A Supreme Court Justice, Bushrod was also the founding president of the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending formerly enslaved people to Africa. Bushrod maintained an estate elsewhere, living at Mount Vernon part-time and initially keeping 79 enslaved people there to farm and maintain the Mansion. Unlike his uncle, Bushrod was willing to sell slaves. Prompted by financial struggles, in 1821 he sold 54 enslaved people to plantation owners in Louisiana. Many families were torn apart in the process. Oliver Smith saw 6 of his 9 children sold south. When asked about the event years later, he told a reporter, “O, it was like cutting off my own limbs.”

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John Augustine Washington III

John Augustine Washington III, MVLA.

John Augustine Washington III, MVLA.

John Augustine Washington III took over management of Mount Vernon from his widowed mother, Jane Charlotte Washington, in 1842. Augustine, as he was known, quickly found his farms unprofitable and tried various schemes to make money. He contracted with a steamship company that brought tourists to the estate and allowed a manufacturer in Washington, D.C., to make souvenirs from Mount Vernon wood. In the late 1850s, he began renting out enslaved people he did not need.

In 1858, Augustine agreed to sell his property to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for $200,000, to be paid in installments over five years. He used $8,575 from the MVLA’s first payment to purchase seven enslaved men and a thirteen-year-old boy to work the parcel of Mount Vernon land he retained as part of the arrangement. Augustine was killed in a Civil War battle in 1861. During the war, many of the enslaved people on his land escaped to Union-occupied Alexandria or Washington, D.C. They officially received their freedom when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863.

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An advertisement placed by John Augustine Washington III to hire out enslaved people.

Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

A Piece of Mount Vernon

Medallion with the Design of the Tomb of Washington, c. 1859, MVLA.

Medallion with the Design of the Tomb of Washington, c. 1859, MVLA.

Nineteenth-century tourists were eager for mementos and relics from their visits to Mount Vernon. In 1856 John Augustine Washington III contracted with entrepreneur James Crutchett, who harvested wood from the estate to make walking sticks and picture frames at his Mount Vernon Factory in Washington, D.C. The frames surrounded commemorative prints and medallions, like this one depicting the tomb of Washington.

Carte-de-visite photograph of Jim Mitchell, ca. 1865. Purchased by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Books and Manuscripts Endowment, 2017.

Carte-de-visite photograph of Jim Mitchell, ca. 1865. Purchased by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Books and Manuscripts Endowment, 2017.

Enterprising African Americans like Jim Mitchell sold canes to tourists, accompanied by stories of the estate during Washington’s time. The tradition of making souvenirs of Mount Vernon wood continued after the Civil War, when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association operated the site as a museum. Some formerly enslaved people, including Jim Mitchell, returned to the estate as paid employees.

Edmund Parker

In the summer of 1898, a Washington Post reporter visited Edmund Parker on his deathbed. For the previous fifteen years, Parker had worked for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) as the guard at Washington’s tomb. Years earlier, he had been enslaved on the estate. Stricken with stomach cancer, the seventy-one-year-old spoke candidly about his life and journey from slavery to freedom, first as the property of a Washington heir and then in his role as a beloved employee of the historic preservation organization maintaining the estate.

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Images of Mount Vernon

As sectional tensions mounted in the lead-up to the Civil War, images of George Washington and Mount Vernon became contested territory. Maine-born Eastman Johnson visited the estate in the summer of 1857. His paintings of Mount Vernon focused on the estate’s African American residents amid decaying buildings, highlighting the harsh reality of slavery. By contrast, in the same decade, Junius Brutus Stearns imagined a scenario of Washington and his slaves working harmoniously in the fields. These contrasting visions of Mount Vernon embodied the bitter debate over slavery in the 1850s.

 

Interpretation of Slavery at Mount Vernon

While an open discussion of slavery has evolved gradually, Mount Vernon has made efforts throughout its history to preserve, interpret, and memorialize those who were enslaved at Mount Vernon.

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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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