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Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon explores the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon while providing insight into George Washington’s evolving opposition to slavery.

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About the Exhibition

Through household furnishings, art works, archaeological discoveries, documents, and interactive displays, the exhibition, which spans 4,400 square feet throughout all seven galleries of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum, demonstrates how closely intertwined the lives of the Washingtons were with those of the enslaved. Nineteen enslaved individuals are featured throughout the exhibit, represented with life-size silhouettes and interactive touchscreens providing biographical details.

More than 350 items are on view—seeds and animal bones, ceramic fragments and metal buttons unearthed from archaeological excavations around the estate, as well as fine tablewares and furniture from the Washington household, providing insights into the enslaved community’s daily lives and work.

Guests gain a better understanding of Washington’s changing views towards slavery, culminating in his landmark decision to include in his will a provision freeing the slaves that he owned. Visitors will have an opportunity to view original manuscript pages from George Washington’s will, written in July 1799, showing his decision to free the slaves he owned.

The Washington Family / La Famille de Washington by Edward Savage in 1798. [W-5298]

“The unfortunate condition of the persons whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.”

- George Washington, ca. 1787–1788

Personal Lives of Enslaved People

The exhibition profiles 19 individuals enslaved at Mount Vernon, using George Washington’s extensive records to piece together what is known of their lives in interactive displays.

Sambo Anderson

Sambo Anderson was a carpenter who kept bees and sold honey to Washington.

William Lee

William Lee traveled with Washington throughout the Revolutionary War and became a well-known figure in his own right.

Ona Judge

Ona Judge served as a personal servant to Martha Washington until she escaped from the President's Mansion in Philadelphia in 1796.

“Life is a burden to a slave person, indeed it is—left without education and the mind terrified all the time.”

- Edmund Parker, enslaved at Mount Vernon under John Augustine Washington III (1841–1861), free employee of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (1874–1879, 1882–1898), 1898

Slavery at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon was George Washington’s home. It was also home to hundreds of enslaved people who lived and worked under Washington’s control. In 1799, there were 317 men, women, and children enslaved at Mount Vernon’s five farms, which covered 8,000 acres. They made up more than 90% of the population of the estate.

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Highlights from the Exhibit

List of Enslaved People at Mount Vernon

Written by George Washington, June 1799

Shortly before drafting his will, George Washington compiled a list of all the enslaved people on Mount Vernon’s five farms that was organized in two columns: “G.W.,” referring to those he owned directly, and “Dower,” indicating those owned by the Custis estate.

This distinction was important. In his will, Washington ordered that his slaves be freed at his wife’s death. This emancipation provision was a powerful public statement of Washington’s antislavery views. Unfortunately, it applied to fewer than half of the people in bondage at Mount Vernon. Those owned by the Custis estate were inherited by Martha Washington’s grandchildren after her death. Many Washington and Custis slaves had married and formed families together. For them, separation from loved ones tainted celebrations of newfound freedom.

House Bell from the System in the Mansion

Copper alloy, iron, ca. 1784 - 1788

This metal bell belonged to Mount Vernon’s original house bell system, installed in the 1780s. A series of wires, cranks, and pins connected pulls in the dining room and bedrooms to bells affixed to an outside wall. The bell’s “ding” alerted enslaved laborers in the Mansion area that they were wanted. Those who worked in the house were always on call.

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Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860. Conservation courtesy of Harry and Erika Lister.

Ceramics Excavated from the House for Families

Ceramic, ca. 1760s - 1792

Archaeological excavation of the cellar trash pit of the House for Families slave quarter (used at Mansion House Farm from the 1760s to 1792) revealed many artifacts that its enslaved residents owned and used. Some items, like a white salt-glazed stoneware slop bowl, were cast-offs from the Washington household.

Others, like this unglazed colonoware bowl, may have been made or purchased by enslaved people themselves.

“Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will and desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom.”

- George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, July 9, 1799

George Washington’s Evolving Views on Slavery

George Washington was born into a world where slavery was common. At age 11, he inherited 10 enslaved people from his father. He would go on to inherit, purchase, rent, and gain control of more than 500 enslaved people at Mount Vernon and his other properties by the end of his life.

Washington’s views on slavery changed over time. Economic and moral concerns led him to question slavery after the Revolutionary War, though he never lobbied publicly for abolition. Unable to extricate himself from slavery during his lifetime, Washington chose to free the 123 enslaved people he owned outright in his will. He was the only founding father to do so.

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An aide to George Washington and ardent abolitionist, the Marquis de Lafayette likely influenced the general’s views on slavery during the American Revolution. Portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, possibly painted by Joseph Boze, ca. 1780-1790.

The Documentary Record

Most enslaved people never had an opportunity to learn reading or writing, so they left few written records of their own. By contrast, George Washington wrote a vast number of letters and kept meticulous records of his plantation.

These documents illuminate his own changing views on slavery. They also contain valuable details about the lives of those in bondage on his estate—information that might otherwise be lost forever.

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George Washington composed this list in July 1799, noting the names, ages, and skills of the people he rented from his neighbor, Mrs. Penelope French.

In addition to many of Washington’s letters and lists, the exhibition also includes documents like the Inspection Roll of Negroes, a ledger documenting enslaved people who ran away to freedom with the British during the Revolutionary War. The roll includes an entry for Harry Washington, “[formerly the property] of General Washington,” who escaped from Mount Vernon in 1781.

Explore the full Inspection Roll of Negroes in the National Archives Catalog online: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

The exhibition also features Senate bill version of the Fugitive Slave Act, which Washington signed into law in 1793, one of two pieces of legislation relating to slavery that he signed while in office.

The Fugitive Slave Act and the Inspection Roll of Negroes appear courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, DC.

“…I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means.”

- Ona Judge Staines, Martha Washington’s enslaved lady’s maid, 1845

Descendants of the Enslaved Community

Loretta Carter Hanes, 1926-2016.

Family heirlooms and oral histories from descendants of those enslaved at Mount Vernon are valuable resources in piecing together the lives those enslaved at Mount Vernon in the 18th century.

These bowls were passed down in the family of Loretta Carter Hanes, a descendant of Suckey Bay and her daughter Rose Carter—both enslaved field workers at Mount Vernon’s River Farm who were emancipated by George Washington’s will. Family members have long used blue-and-white tableware, a tradition they trace to their ancestors at Mount Vernon. Although these bowls date to the 19th century, many fragments of blue-and-white ceramics have been unearthed in an archaeological excavation of an 18th-century Mount Vernon slave quarter.

Courtesy of Loretta Carter Hanes and Peter Hanes

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Washington and Slavery

Learn more about George Washington and the enslaved population at Mount Vernon.

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Exhibit Catalog

Edited by Susan P. Schoelwer, Senior Curator at George Washington's Mount Vernon, with introduction by Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University.

Lives Bound Together provides fresh research on this important topic, with brief biographies of 19 enslaved individuals, 10 essays, and 130 illustrations (including paintings, prints, and household furnishings from the Mansion, artifacts excavated by archaeologists from the slave quarters, documents, maps, and conjectural silhouettes that suggest the presence of the enslaved).

The text illuminates the lives, families, and experiences of the enslaved people of Mount Vernon as well as Washington's own evolving views on slavery, culminating in his pioneering action to free his slaves per the terms of his will. A Mount Vernon bookplate, signed by the author, is included with your purchase.

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Copyright 2016. Softcover with 172 pages. Printed in USA.

Exhibit Details

The Lives Bound Together exhibition could not have been made possible without the contributions from individuals and foundations in addition to four special donors: Ambassador and Mrs. Nicholas F. Taubman, Nimick Forbesway Foundation, Dr. Scholl Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

Exhibit Dates

October 1, 2016 - Extended July 11, 2021