The enslaved community at Mount Vernon found many ways to fill the time they were not required to work for the Washingtons. According to George Washington, enslaved people at Mount Vernon had two hours off for meals during the day. The dinner break took place in the early afternoon.1 While enslaved workers at Mount Vernon labored throughout the year, there were regular days off as well as a few holidays. The enslaved community at Mount Vernon typically worked a six-day week where Sunday was generally the day off for everyone on the estate aside for those who worked in the Mansion. Enslaved people were granted time off to celebrate religious holidays as well, the longest being the three to four days off given for Christmas.2 Other religious holidays that provided days off were Easter and Whitsunday, also known as Pentecost.3
Enslaved persons at Mount Vernon found a variety of ways to fill their time off from work. Evenings were frequently spent with activities to benefit themselves and their families rather than the Washingtons. In addition to their day's work for Washington, enslaved people had their own housekeeping work, such as caring for their children, tending chickens and garden plots, cooking, preserving the produce of gardens, and caring for clothing.4 With little free time and control over their everyday life, Mount Vernon's enslaved population attempted to exert some free will and choice when it came to their private lives.
Music, storytelling, and religion provided an emotional outlet and carried on traditions—some from Africa and others forged in years of enslavement. Some people spent their free time visiting other farms or plantations where their spouses or family members lived. Some found time for games and sports in their free hours. A Polish visitor to Mount Vernon described what may have been a team sport played by enslaved people on one Sunday in the summer of 1798. He recorded seeing a group of about thirty people divided into two groups. They were playing a game he described as "prisoner's base," which involved "jumps and gambols as if they had rested all week."5
George Washington occasionally permitted enslaved individuals to leave his home or plantation to attend special events in the surrounding area. In the fall of 1784, for example, Washington gave six shillings so that his "Servts" could "go to the Race." Two years later, he allowed people to attend the Alexandria races with restrictions, under the stipulation that some enslaved workers remained on each of his farms, while the others were free to stagger their attendance over the several day event.6
Mary V. Thompson
George Washington's Mount Vernon
1. George Washington, "5 February 1760," "27 June 1786," "10 July 1786," The Diaries of George Washington, 6 volumes, eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), Vol. 1, 233; Vol. 4, 353, Vol. 5, 6; "Lund Washington to George Washington, 2 September 1778" (manuscript, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association; typescript, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).
2. See Weekly Reports, "24 December 1786," "31 December 1785," "30 December 1786," in Mount Vernon Weekly Reports, "26 November 1785-30 December 1786" (photostat, PS-134, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association); Weekly Reports, "29 December 1798," in Mount Vernon Farm Accounts II, 31 March 1798-7 January 1799 (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association); George Washington, "29 December 1786," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 5, 85; and "George Augustine Washington to George Washington, 28 December 1790," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, ed. W.W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, and Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1987-present), Vol. 7, 141.
3. George Washington, "7 April 1760," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 1, 264; Weekly Report, "14 April 1798," Mount Vernon Farm Accounts II, "31 March 1798-7 January 1799," Mount Vernon Farm Accounts II.
4. For an example of Mount Vernon enslaved people mending their clothing with fabric intended for other purposes, see "Anthony Whiting to George Washington, 22 January 1792."
5. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805 with some further account of life in New Jersey, ed. Metchie J.E. Budka (Elizabeth, New Jersey: The Grassman Publishing Company, Inc., 1965), 101.
6. See entry for "26 October 1784" in George Washington Cash Memoranda, "September 1783-November 1784"; George Washington, "9 October 1786," "11 October 1786-December 1786," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 5, 49, 50; "Charles MacIver to George Washington, 17 June 1786," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 4, 113.
Many of the documents listed above can now be found on Founders Online.