Episode 2: “Laboring”
As an overseer, Davy Gray was entrusted by George Washington with the management of the enslaved laborers on Dogue Run Farm. His weekly reports to Washington revealed progress toward Washington’s goal of transforming Mount Vernon into a model of British agriculture. But Gray was also enslaved, just like the men, women, and children he oversaw. In this episode, we explore Gray’s complicated story to learn about the daily labor of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community and Washington’s relentless quest to make his plantation into a self-sustaining enterprise.
Full transcripts, show notes, and bibliographies available at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com.
Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Episode 2: “Laboring”
Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and James P. Ambuske
Episode Published November 15, 2021
Brenda Parker: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
PARKER: On the shores of the Potomac River, the work never ends. There is always more to do at Mount Vernon. There are meals to prepare, clothing to mend and wash, rooms to clean, fires to light, barrels and nails to make, and animals to tend.
For Davy Gray, his work begins early. He rises with his wife Molly well before the sun is up. They head to the fields of Dogue Run Farm. Gray spends his days overseeing the work of men, women, and children. They, like he, are enslaved at Mount Vernon. And must do as George and Martha Washington direct.
They plant and harvest major cash crops—first tobacco and later wheat—as well as corn, vegetables, and grasses. They spend spring hauling and scattering dung. In the summer they cut rye, oats, and wheat in the hot Virginia sun. And in the fall they pick, husk, and shell corn. During the cold and snowy winter months they slaughter hogs, build fences, and clear swamps so they can plant additional crops next year.
There is always more work.
The work never ends.
Davy Gray was assigned the position of overseer which meant he was responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of a farm. An overseer who was enslaved was in a very complicated position. See, if the people Gray supervised didn’t complete their work as the Washingtons expected, Gray was supposed to punish them.
Punish people who attempted to resist their enslavement even just a little bit. Punish them for not wanting to work for someone else. Punish them for trying to make their life a bit better.
We don’t know if or how often Gray punished anyone. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe that’s how he resisted.
There were some small benefits to this challenging position. Gray received leather breeches as opposed to coarse linen and extra rations of pork. But most significantly, Gray was allowed to live with his wife Molly.
Many families at Mount Vernon did not have the opportunity to live together. People lived where they worked, and if a couple didn’t work on the same farm, they didn’t live together.
Labor dictated life.
I’m Brenda Parker, Mount Vernon’s Coordinator of African American Interpretation and Special Projects.
And this is Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Episode 2: “Laboring”.
If you have visited Mount Vernon, you might be familiar with what was known as Mansion House Farm. It is where George and Martha Washington’s house sits, surrounded by gardens, outbuildings, and an amazing view across the Potomac River.
What would this landscape have looked like to eighteenth-century visitors to Mount Vernon?
Here’s Jessie MacLeod, associate curator, to explain.
JESSIE MACLEOD: In 1799, which was the last year of Washington's life, and the year when Mount Vernon was kind of at its height, there were 317 enslaved men, women and children living at Mount Vernon. They were spread across five different farms, which comprised the Mount Vernon plantation. The whole plantation was 8,000 acres in total, so it was a huge property. And the people who were stationed on the outlying farms were largely doing agricultural labor. They were growing the wheat and other grains that were Washington's main crops at the time. The 90 or so individuals who were stationed at the Mansion House Farm, which was the area surrounding the Washington's residents, many of them were either working in the house or they were working at skill trades like carpentry or blacksmithing or bricklaying. So those individuals had slightly different experiences than those on the outlying farms.
PARKER: Mount Vernon was a large plantation made up of four outlining farms: Dogue Run, Muddy Hole, River, and Union.
Thomas Reinhart, Mount Vernon’s director of preservation, tells us more about Mansion House Farm, the plantation’s core.
THOMAS REINHART: The Mansion House Farm is laid out around that circle, which when it is initially is laid out is referred to as a courtyard, which gives you an idea of what Washington had in mind and what he executed. A large five-part structure with the main Mansion being the center block, the two colonnades as being hyphens or arms that go out, and then the two dependencies on the north, the servants’ hall and on the south, the kitchen all being conceived of as a single structure, a Palladian, five-part house.
If you were in Rome and you drive through a gateway and your carriage would go around in this courtyard and you get dropped off at the front door, and then it would go back out. So there's that heart of the plantation right there. And all of that was laid out really in the 1770's right before the war. And while that's going on as well, he's moving out buildings and creating the south lane perpendicular to the access right down the middle of the house, and he's creating the north lane also on that perpendicular access. So he then develops the lanes as having specific purposes.
PARKER: So what was the purpose of these outbuildings? And what type of labor was done within them?
REINHART: The south lane is all domestic support buildings, the kitchen's on the south, you've got the store house, the smokehouse, the wash house, which goes in a little bit later, but is there, and then down to the stable yard where a coach house and a stable are set up. That's all to support the life of the Washington's in the Mansion. But on that north lane, it's a little bit different. It's all the industrial enterprises that Washington takes on in the 1760's and 70's. So there's a spinning house, there's a salt house, these are all to make products which are being sold by Washington elsewhere. In the spinning house, he's got a whole cottage industry of taking in a thread from his neighbors and having his weavers weave them into cloth to order and he's being paid for that work. In the salt house, he's salting fish and then he's shipping that fish off to the Caribbean. And then the blacksmith shop ties down that end. All of these are industrial pursuits along that north lane. And this is not typical on plantations in the 18th century.
PARKER: When Washington began managing Mount Vernon in the mid-1750s, it was like most Chesapeake tobacco plantations. Over the course of his life, though, Washington moved away from tobacco production, began to grow wheat, and diversified the goods his enslaved laborers produced. This meant adding more outbuildings and training people in new skills to create these products and realize Washington’s vision of a self-sustaining plantation enterprise.
MACLEOD:Washington was really interested in saving money wherever possible, and he saw that one way to do this was to train enslaved people in skilled trades so that he wouldn't have to hire outside tradesmen to do those tasks. So one thing that he would do was when he did hire or have an indentured laborer who was skilled in something like blacksmithing or carpentry, one condition of their employment would be that they would train the enslaved people who were working under them. And so those individuals would then gain those skills and then in the future, could use them on projects at Mount Vernon. Washington also occasionally indentured out enslaved people to skilled craftsmen. There's one instance in the 1760's where there are two enslaved men who he indenture's to a blacksmith so that they can learn those skills and then bring them back to Mount Vernon.
MARY THOMPSON:There are over 300 hired and indentured people over the 40 years that the Washington's are married and living here. They primarily come from all over Europe, most of them from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, but there are also a lot of German people. There are French people and Indentured people would have come here trying to find like everybody else, a better life, a new life here. Some of them are convicts, and so instead of being in prison, the government would send them over here and they would be indentured to people for the duration of their sentence.
Mary Thompson and I'm the Research Historian at George Washington's Mount Vernon.
PARKER: And she literally wrote the book on Mount Vernon and slavery, entitled “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon.
In the years before the American Revolution, Washington began a practice of hiring indentured men and women to come to Mount Vernon to work and teach enslaved people new industrial or farming techniques. According to Sambo Anderson, he was trained in carpentry by William Bernard Sears, who came to Virginia as an indentured convict.
MACLEOD: There are a lot of different types of trades that people at Mount Vernon were skilled in. There were enslaved blacksmiths who were making and repairing all sorts of iron tools and supplies like nails for use on the plantation. There were carpenters who were building structures and fences, repairing buildings, cutting wood for use on various building projects. There were also bricklayers and brick makers. There were also ditch diggers. Well, that doesn't sound like a skill, that actually was something that required a lot of knowledge. It was almost like a structural engineer in the 18th century, because they were dealing with moving earth and creating drainage solutions and that sort of thing. Those are all tasks that were performed by enslaved men, but there are also women who were trained in certain skills, especially having to do with textile work.
So there were women who were spinning flax and wool into thread and yarn, and that was then used to make clothing for enslaved people, and there were seamstress. There were also knitters who were knitting stockings for the enslaved community. Washington really tried to keep as many of these types of industries in-house as he could. Mount Vernon wasn't self-sufficient at all, but whatever he could, Washington would try to have enslaved people learn certain skills so that in the future, he wouldn't have to pay somebody to do them.
PARKER:Another group of skilled laborers was required to ensure the Washingtons and all of their guests were always well fed.
Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz, Director of Collections and Visitor Engagement at Stratford Hall Plantation and Director of Education and Historic Interpretation at Virginia's Executive Mansion describes all of the people necessary to put a dish on the table at a place like Mount Vernon.
KELLEY FANTO DEETZ:So a lot of work went into putting a meal on the table for the planter family. In addition to the enslaved chef or the enslaved cook, who was really responsible for the main course and directing all of the different dishes that we're gonna go on to that table, you had assistant cooks. You had scullery maids that were literally washing all the dishes with sand and lye in the kitchen yard. You had the people growing all of the food. And if you really back up and think about what it took from crop to table, you had a lot of different people involved in that. Whether you're serving rum from the Caribbean that was sugar cane planted by enslaved folks in the Caribbean, harvested then distilled and turned into rum and then being shipped by enslaved labor all the way up to places like Virginia. Whether it was something very localized, where an enslaved gardener or an enslaved butcher would be cutting up a hog in the kitchen yard to get it ready for consumption on that table. So at a larger plantation, somewhere like Mount Vernon, somewhere like Stratford Hall, somewhere like Montpelier, or Monticello, you're gonna have a large network of people supporting that cook, supporting all the labor needs that went into putting that food on the table.
PARKER: Keeping a large plantation like Mount Vernon running required huge amounts of labor. Hundreds of men and women, who were mostly enslaved, worked long exhausting hours to ensure the Washingtons and their guests had the very best.
Gender did not impact the Washingtons expectation that their enslaved people put in a full day’s work. As Washington wrote in 1789 "…every labourer (male or female) does as much in the 24 hours as their strength, without endangering their health, or constitution, will allow…"
DEETZ: Enslaved women had a lot of the same responsibilities as enslaved men did. But enslaved women had an extra burden of having to do a lot of the domestic work, of having to be a wet nurse to white babies, to nurse white children, to raise white children, to be the nursemaid in the house, to follow around the lady of the house and be there for whatever she needed. And I think an added level of stress put on to enslaved women, especially within these domestic spaces, is the threat of rape.
So the power dynamics on a plantation were completely imbalanced, and you have these enslaved women having to work very closely with a lot of the men who are in complete power in that situation, having to literally go into the bedrooms of these planter men to take care of them, to bathe them, etcetera, and rape was something that was not just common, but accepted sometimes because of the politics of race and gender during that period.
PARKER: There is no easy way to put it. Life for people who were forcible enslaved was hard. And the risk of rape for women, men, girls, and boys was always present. When you’re seen as property, not a human being, by those around you, by society, by the legal system it probably felt like there were very few options.
But these people, because they were people, found ways time and time again to turn their truly terrible experiences into opportunities. While the status of slave was imposed on them, they did not lack humanity and ambition.
We’ll have more when Intertwined returns after the break.
JEANETTE PATRICK: Hi I’m Jeanette Patrick one of the co-creators of Intertwined. If you would like to explore the topics discussed in this episode, learn more about our guests, or get a list of related readings, please visit George Washington podcast dot com.
Thank you for listening. Now, back to Intertwined.
PARKER: The Mansion House Farm’s success would not have been possible without the enslaved agricultural laborers on the plantation’s four outlying farms. When Washington took control of the estate he, like other Chesapeake planters, grew tobacco as his main crop. But tobacco grown along the Potomac wasn’t as profitable nor as appealing to European tastes. Growing wheat and other commodities seemed like a better option for Potomac planters.
LORENA WALSH: The pace varied very much by region and by what the different kinds of soils produced best. There was very little, very slow shift of wheat along the low York and lower James River because that was where they were producing the highest quality, highest priced tobacco and wheat did not do very well at all. So they concentrated on tobacco. Further north along the Rappahannock and the Potomac, and on Maryland’s eastern shore, planters were moving more into wheat because tobacco commanded lower prices and in some places, like the Rappahannock basin, wheat grew pretty well.
I'm Dr. Lorena Walsh. I worked for a number of years for Historic St. Mary’s City and then for 27 years for Colonial Williamsburg as a Research Historian.
I would say there are really three reasons for the increasing shift to wheat. One was economic Oronoco growing areas, all of Maryland, the Potomac basin, the Rappahannock basin, and in the Piedmont, the price of tobacco was lower than the price that planters could get along the York, and the price of wheat on the international market were increasing. This was especially true after the Seven Years’ War when there were harvest shortages in Europe and suddenly Britain used to be an exporter of grain, and suddenly they're sometimes having to import it, so the market expands, slave population in the West Indies is also expanding, requiring more grain there, and people seeing the price of grain going up and the price of tobacco stagnant and are going down, many planters who had enough land and labor to make that switch began to mainly to add wheat to their crop mix not to totally switch, but to add it.
Another factor, I would say is social. That is, elite planters, particularly admired the British aristocracy, and in Britain, elite farmers were embracing the movement for agricultural improvement. Taking better care of the land, using lots of manure and fertilized to make it more productive, and they considered that the highest form of civilization where as people going around chopping trees growing stuff with hoes was considered pretty primitive. So elite planters wanted to not just increase their profits, but increase their social standing.
And then finally, there was a political reason with the Stamp Act and increasing tensions with Britain, planters were thinking about economic boycotts to stop shipping tobacco, to stop importing manufacturers, and if they stopped importing manufactured goods, they were going to have to make cloth and iron products on their own plantations and so they needed to diversify into other kinds of crops so they weren't so dependent on goods from Britain, and then by 1774, when it looks like they're headed for a war, it became a necessity, all of a sudden there was no way to get the cloth and the iron and the products that were essential to run the plantation, so there was a much bigger switch into wheat at that point.
PARKER:For these economic, social, and political reasons many planters like Washington began to shift strategies.
How did greater interest in British agricultural methods reshape Mount Vernon’s landscape?
BRUCE RAGSDALE: What is different about Washington is that even by the spring of 1760, which is the first season that he actually can implement any changes in his farming; he's planning the kind of grasses and fodder crops that are used in Great Britain to expand the number of livestock which is necessary for draft animals; it's necessary for creating the manure of which the British husbandry system is so dependent on; and he's getting these seeds for these from Great Britain in some cases. So he is interested in exploring other opportunities right from the very beginning, more so when he abandons tobacco and starts looking for other crops that he might be able to commercially market.
Bruce Ragsdale, I was for many years the Director of the Federal Judicial history office, and I've been working as a scholar on George Washington for many, many years.
How did he know the names of these treatises? How did he know what kind of crops he wanted to introduce? He had spoken to some other Virginia planters who had adopted these methods from Great Britain. I think one of the important ones that we're looking to is a man named John Baylor, who had probably the largest library of British agricultural treatises. And Washington had stayed with Baylor on a couple of occasions going back and forth to Williamsburg. Gut there's a larger question of why he would have been so drawn to this model of British agricultural improvement. I can only assume that he spoke to British colleagues in the army about this and he was so interested in farming it would have been a natural topic of conversation. But the fact is he comes back in 1759, with a pretty substantial knowledge of how British agriculture has changed in the last 20 or 30 years, and where information about that change could most easily be found.
Washington's able to implement these new techniques of British husbandry in large part because of his presence in the field and his frequent visit to the field. He usually demonstrates these himself, or demands, that's why he carries around these notebooks that he can go out the fields. Before the Revolutionary War, he was more interested in the specific techniques of British husbandry rather than a broader integrated system. But he is introducing new kinds of plowing and seeding before the revolution, and he translates it from the book knowledge to the field knowledge. There again, one wishes there were somewhat more documentation of how he transferred that knowledge to the enslaved. And that, again, makes me think that he had a relationship with people like Morris and Davy Gray that served him in that stead. That he was able to take advantage of the continuity of their position as overseers to work with them in the implementation of these new techniques, which would often change from year to year. So it's an evolving system. It's always meant to be experimental, and that means that work is never exactly the same for the enslaved from one year to the next.
PARKER: This “evolving system” required the enslaved men and women on Washington’s farms to learn and implement new agricultural methods. They were the ones ultimately responsible for ensuring these crops grew. And it required a lot of work.
As Dr. Walsh and Mary Thompson explain, the Washingtons had high expectations.
WALSH: They wanted to utilize every waking moment of enslaved person's life to use labor efficiency for maximum profit, and of course, humanity and profit maximization are somewhat contradictory goals.
THOMPSON: A typical day would have started very, very early before sun up. Enslaved people at Mount Vernon, as on many other plantations at the same period, were expected to be on the work site as the sun was coming up. So they're getting up in the dark and they're working, they're expected to be on the work site until sundown. So it would have been a very long day and longer in the summer, of course than in the winter, and there was a lot of scrutiny.
PARKER:But the labor didn’t end when the sun set. There was always more work for people enslaved at Mount Vernon to do, regardless of their job assignment or the farm they lived on. Mary Thompson explains how people spent their time after their work for the Washingtons was done.
THOMPSON: A lot of times they were doing work for themselves. The families had their own garden plots and raised chickens, so they might be doing that sort of thing, they might be washing their own clothes, they might be making things they could sell in order to earn money from someone off the plantation. We know some people made baskets and brooms and things like that, others would have been, again, taking care of their chickens and their gardens, because produce from the gardens could be sold. They might sell eggs or chickens to people on other plantations. There was also a Sunday market in Alexandria, where a lot of enslaved people from many plantations would come into town and sell things they made or sell things that they raised. Others might be able to find a job on someone else's plantation. Maybe a carpenter could get paid to do a small job on someone's plantation on his day off at Mount Vernon. We know that sometimes enslaved women from Gunston Hall plantation, for example, would sometimes act as midwives for enslaved women here at Mount Vernon. And so there were ways to earn money and do other sorts of things that would help a family or an individual to get ahead.
There were also things that people did just hanging around the house and they did get some rest on their one day off or in the evenings. And so there's evidence of telling stories just about their lives and about their lives in Africa for the ones who had grown up there and been brought to America. Telling stories, sitting around, smoking pipes, playing games, marbles seems to have been pretty popular.
PARKER: There were moments, despite their status, that members of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community found enjoyment in their lives. We’ll learn more about how in future episodes.
So how did Washington actually manage all of the people and work happening on five separate farms?
He needed a network of people he could trust, especially during the Revolutionary War and Presidency when he spent very little time at Mount Vernon. Washington relied on the labor of hire, indentured, and enslaved people like Davy Gray, who worked as overseers and managers. It was their responsibility to keep the Washingtons’ updated. It may surprise us that he used people he enslaved in a supervisory role. Dr. Ragsdale again.
RAGSDALE: Enslaved overseers had been common much earlier in the 18th century when there was not a pool of white men to hire. But it had fallen out of their favor or practice before the mid-century. It does become common after the 1760s. I mean, one thing is Washington saves money. Overseers were paid most of the time and at Mount Vernon, overseers were paid by a share of the crop. They would negotiate this with Washington when they were hired. It was often one ninth of the crop produced under their supervision, and so one ninth of the wheat Washington gained profit from at any given farm would go to the overseer, and obviously he avoids that cost if he employs an enslaved overseer. I don't think that alone explains why he's using enslaved overseers. He doesn't quite acknowledge this. Except in the case of one overseer, a man named Davy Gray, he doesn't regularly acknowledge their skill. But he confers with the enslaved overseers all the time, and there's a consistency and a continuity that he gains from working with enslaved overseers. And if they're also with some advantage in terms of the enslaved overseer's supervision and management of the other enslaved laborers, he never mentions it, but it may have been the case, and he offers various privileges to enslave overseers. They wear different clothes; they get more provisions; and in one of the most important privileges they receive is they live with their wives, which when Davy Gray moved from one plantation to another, he moves to four different ones, but it's in five moves, at each time, his wife moves with him. Morris' wife is reassigned to Dogue Run after he becomes overseer; and that is increasingly not the arrangement of the distribution of labor across Mount Vernon. At least by the 1790s the majority of married couples among the enslaved were living at separate plantations.
PARKER: Washington’s farm managers routinely sent him written reports on progress made on Mount Vernon’s five farms. Jessie MacLeod explains how Davy Gray and the other overseers communicated important information.
MACLEOD: I think it's likely that he was delivering weekly reports orally, and generally the way that the weekly report system worked was that each overseer would report to the manager who would then compile it all into the weekly reports that Washington received. So the information from Gray was already going to be processed and received by Washington, once removed. We don't know the exact circumstances, but I think it's likely that it was in a world exchange.
PARKER:While there were some perks to the job, it is impossible to know how Gray felt about supervising people with the same legal status as his. But there is at least one example in the written record of Gray using it to promote a slightly better life for his fellow laborers.
MACLEOD: Davy Gray was able to use his position as an overseer to advocate for the enslaved community, and Washington trusted Gray for the most part, and praised his work ethic. Gray had Washington's ear in a lot of ways, and so there's one point where Washington changes the way that he's distributing rations to enslaved people of corn meal specifically, and Gray tells Washington that this new method is leaving people with less than they had previously received, and that some of his people on his farm are going one, sometimes two days without any corn meal to eat. And Washington hears this and he believes Gray and he makes an adjustment accordingly. So Gray is able to use his role as overseer to create better conditions for the people on his farm. Now, of course, that power was limited, there was only so much he could do, but it was one way that an enslaved person who had more access to Washington could try to create better conditions and improve things for the fellow members of their community.
PARKER: Despite the respect that Washington seemed to have for Gray, we do not have record of how Gray felt about Washington. We believe Gray was illiterate so he couldn’t leave a written record.
We do know Davy Gray was among the hired and enslaved workers outfitted with mourning clothes for George Washington’s funeral. We also know that he and his wife Molly were owned by the Custis Estate and not freed by Washington’s will.
It is also unclear from the record if they had any children. Molly was not listed as a mother. But based on her and Gray’s age it is possible the children were adults by the time Washington began keeping records of families. If the couple did have children, they, like their mother, would have remained enslaved.
After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, Gray may have been inherited by Nelly Parke Custis Lewis, Martha’s granddaughter. That remains unclear.
The fate of Molly is also unknown.
George and Martha Washington controlled the lives of Davy Gray, Molly, and the hundreds of other people enslaved at Mount Vernon. What were the Washingtons thoughts on the institution of slavery? And did they change during their lives? That’s next time on Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.
I’m your host, Brenda Parker.
Intertwined was co-created and co-written by Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske.
Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.
Additional producers were me, Brenda Parker and Jessie MacLeod. MacLeod was the lead curator of the Lives Bound Together exhibit, which inspired this podcast.
Mary Thompson provided invaluable research support. Thompson is Mount Vernon’s research historian and the author of “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret": George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2019.
We received fact checking and additional editorial support from Samantha Snyder.
Rebekah Hanover Pettit designed our show’s beautiful artwork.
Thank you to Mount Vernon’s Media and Communications Department for their support.
Our summer interns were Izzy Black and Maggie-Mae Ellison from Midwestern State University in Texas. They helped put together our show notes and episode bibliographies.
Thank you to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
And a very special thanks to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon without whose financial support this project would not have been possible.
Learn more about Mount Vernon’s enslaved community and topics covered in this program by checking out our reading lists on our show’s website at George Washington Podcast dot com.
Thank you for listening.
Director of Preservation
Tom is from New Jersey. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. He holds MAs from Florida State University and George Washington University. Tom is Mount Vernon's Director of Preservation, overseeing archaeological and architectural work, as well as viewshed protection.
Historian / Griot / Narrator
Brenda Parker is the Coordinator of African American Interpretation and Special Projects at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Foremost she serves as a liaison between the institution’s mission to “preserve, maintain and restore” and the descendants of the enslaved at Mount Vernon. She researches and develops programs including the Lives, Loves, and Losses: Remembering the Families. She also works closely with the League of the Descendants of the Mount Vernon Enslaved, a newly formed organization. They freely allow and encourage her to portray their ancestors in the second part of her job as a Historical Character Interpreter. In this position, she narrates the stories of multiple persons individually or collectively in story format such as her play titled Freedom Skies.
Brenda Parker has worked for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for 17 years. She started working at the Mount Vernon Inn in 2004. She has thirty-plus years of acting, music, and theatre experience, as well as early childhood education. Additionally, she is the mother of four adult children, two beautiful and smart daughters-in-law, and is Griot to one exceptional tiny human being. Brenda believes in the Ghanaian ancestral saying of “Sankofa” To go back and get. In other words, we must learn from our past to get to our future.
Lorena Walsh was a research historian at Colonial Williamsburg from 1980 to 2009. She is the author of From Calabar to Carter's Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community, and Motives of Honor, Pleasure, and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607-1763.
Mary V. Thompson grew up as an “army brat” in the United States, West Germany, and the occupied city of West Berlin. She began working at Mount Vernon in 1980, after earning a B.A. in History, with a minor in Folklore, from Samford University, and an M.A. in History from the University of Virginia. Mary has filled a number of roles at Mount Vernon, where she is now the Research Historian (2008-present). She curated the traveling exhibition, Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed, which opened in 1998. Her first book was “In the Hands of a Good Providence”: Religion in the Life of George Washington (University of Virginia Press, 2008). More recently, she published A Short Biography of Martha Washington (Applewood Books, 2017) aimed at the young adult market. Her latest book is “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press, 2019).
Director of Collections and Visitor Engagement, Stratford Hall
Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz is the Director of Collections and Visitor Engagement at Stratford Hall, as well as the Director of Education and Historic Interpretation at Virginia’s Executive Mansion, and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of African American Studies at U.C. Berkeley. She holds a BA in Africana Studies and History from The College of William & Mary and an MA and Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine, which was named as one of the top ten books on food of 2017 by the Smithsonian Magazine. You can find her most recent work in Audible’s The Great Courses on the history of sugar, and her contribution to the forthcoming cookbook California Soul, with celebrity chef Tanya Holland and Alice Walker.
Author and Independent Scholar
Bruce Ragsdale is the author of Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery (2021). He was a fellow at the Washington Library and the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and he was Mount Vernon’s inaugural fellow with the Georgian Papers Programme. Ragsdale formerly served as the director of the Federal Judicial History Office at the Federal Judicial Center. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.
Jessie MacLeod joined Mount Vernon’s curatorial team in 2012, after receiving an M.A. in history, with a certificate in public history, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She previously received a B.A. in history from Yale University and has worked at numerous historic sites interpreting eighteenth and nineteenth-century American history. In her time at Mount Vernon, Jessie served as lead curator for the award-winning exhibition Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (2016-2021).