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.
Edmund Parker arrived at Mount Vernon in 1841, at age fourteen, as one of the enslaved people owned by John Augustine Washington III (known to his family as Augustine). Parker recalled that slavery had been “mighty hard work. Had more put onto me than I could perform, ’cept as I took care of myself. There was mighty heavy timber on that Mount Vernon farm, and we slave folks was pulled and hauled. Altogether, as far as kindness was concerned, I reckon they meant well enough, although life is a burden to a slave person; indeed it is—left without education and the mind terrified all the time.”1
Parker married Susan, an enslaved woman whom Augustine had purchased for $585 in 1852. Their wedding took place in the library at Mount Vernon and was officiated, unusually, by a white minister. The couple went on to have nineteen children, including two sets of twins.
During the Civil War, Edmund Parker ran away from Mount Vernon, seeking refuge in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., where he cooked for Union troops. In the ensuing years, as a free man, he and his family lived in Alexandria, followed by a stint in Pennsylvania, before finally settling back in Washington.
In 1882 Parker was hired by the MVLA to serve as the watchman at Washington’s tomb. Parker thus joined a long line of guards who stood sentry over the pilgrimage site after Washington’s new tomb was completed in the 1830s (with the help of people formerly enslaved at Mount Vernon). Visitors took note of these African American watchmen—first enslaved men and, later, free men who were employees of the MVLA, like Parker. As historian Scott Casper has written, the tomb guards deliberately provided the “authentic” antebellum experience that visitors craved, sometimes claiming a personal relationship with the general (though none had been at Mount Vernon during George Washington’s lifetime) and crafting engaging narratives “in a dialect that white people associated with native black Virginians.”2 One Washington Post reporter who visited Mount Vernon many times fondly extolled the estate’s timelessness, including “the same old Virginia darky” always stationed at Washington’s tomb.3 Another visitor pronounced, “Old Edmund is a type of the real old time southern negro that is rapidly becoming extinct.”4 Many different men served as tomb guard, but to most tourists, they were an interchangeable and treasured part of the Mount Vernon scenery. Few visitors seemed to realize they were viewing calculated performances, catered specifically to their expectations.
As Mount Vernon became a site of pilgrimage and tourism, African Americans on the estate played key roles in maintaining and interpreting Washington’s life and legacy. Some sold souvenir canes made from Mount Vernon trees. Sarah Johnson, Edmund Parker’s niece and another person formerly enslaved by Augustine Washington, worked as a housekeeper and sold milk to tourists for five cents a glass. Her husband, Nathan, worked as “majordomo” in the Mansion, collecting admission tickets, answering questions, and taking and selling visitors’ photographs.
Parker and his contemporaries took pride in their work. The dying man recalled fondly the blue uniform with nickel-plated buttons and silver badge that he wore as an employee of the MVLA. Even though visitors seemed to view him as part of the Mount Vernon landscape, Parker’s home was in Washington, D.C. He visited his wife, children, and grandchildren every other weekend, staying the rest of the time on a bed in Mount Vernon’s old washhouse.
After Parker became ill, the MVLA paid him his monthly wage as a pension, and superintendent Harrison Howell Dodge visited the ailing man. When Parker died on December 30, 1898, his obituary ran in the Washington Post and other national newspapers, under the headline, “a Faithful Guardian of Washington’s Tomb.”5 The association paid his funeral expenses and began looking for a replacement. Dodge struggled to find someone “as typical of ‘ye olden time’” as Parker, but eventually located a successor.6 An African American employee stood watch over Washington’s tomb until 1965.7
George Washington's Mount Vernon
If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington’s 1786 and 1799 slave lists: George Washington, Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, and “Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, Edward G. Lengel, et al. (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)]; the Mount Vernon slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian.
1. Quoted in Scott E. Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008), 196. Details of Parker’s life and Mount Vernon in the nineteenth century have been drawn from this work.
2. Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon, 185.
3. “Guardian of the Dead,” Washington Post, Nov. 18, 1894, quoted in Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon, 186.
4. Mrs. J. L. Holbrook, “Seven Days at Our National Capital,” The International: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Travel and Literature 5, no. 4 (Oct. 1898): 279.
5. Washington Post, Dec. 31, 1898 (obituary); New York Sun, Jan. 15, 1899 (“Faithful Guardian”), quoted in Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon, 197.
6. Harrison Howell Dodge to Justine Van Rensselaer Townsend, Aug. 5, 1898, quoted in Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon, 198.
7. Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon, 225. At least one of Parker’s children carried on the family tradition of serving in prominent American institutions. After several years joining his father at Mount Vernon, Parker’s son Harry was hired to work a variety of jobs at the U.S. Capitol. in the late 1880s, he was appointed as an assistant for the House Ways and Means Committee, preparing for meetings, serving as doorkeeper, and tending to committee members’ needs. When Harry retired in 1937, the House voted to supply him with an annual pension of $1,260. One congressman described Harry as being “as much a part of this institution as is the dome over this building”; “Harry Needs a Rest,” History, Art & Archives of the United States House of Representatives (blog), Sept. 29, 2014, history.house.gov/Blog/Detail/15032407924.