The Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon marks the site where both free and enslaved people were buried in the 18th and 19th centuries, without permanent identifying markers.

Dedication ceremony at the Mount Vernon Slave Memorial (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)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 those enslaved and a few free blacks who worked at Mount Vernon in the 18th and 19th centuries. Oral histories suggest that the bodies were buried with their feet towards the east (the river), symbolizing individuals' 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 and West Ford. Both Lee and Ford were free men 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 Mount Vernon Ladies' Association’s 1929 marker noting the site of the 200-year old cemetery, 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, as it was located off the beaten path. The cemetery lay unattended and forgotten in dense underbrush for years after the 1929 marker was dedicated.

In 1982, a small group searching for information regarding site where enslaved people were buried stumbled upon the grave marker. Inspired by their discovery, Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam wrote a column in 1983 calling for the cemetery 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 enslaved community at Mount Vernon and other 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 enslaved people from his father, and over the course of his life, at least 577 enslaved people lived and worked at Mount Vernon. Washington's views changed around slavery and when died in 1799, his will stated that the enslaved people he directly owned were to be freed after Martha Washington's death. The only exception was William Lee, who was freed immediately. 

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 and African Americans, 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.

Slavery at Mount Vernon

Washington depended on the labor of hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children to build and maintain his household and plantation.They, in turn, found ways to survive in a world that denied their freedom.

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