Dec. 20, 2021

Episode 7: Preserving

Episode 7: Preserving

Episode 7: “Preserving”

Edmund Parker never knew George and Martha Washington, but he knew Mount Vernon and the Washington Family very well. Parker was one of the many enslaved people who labored on the plantation in the nineteenth century after the Washingtons’ deaths. Later, as a free man, Parker was among Mount Vernon’s first interpreters when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the property. In this episode, we explore what happened to the Mount Vernon landscape in the nineteenth century and various efforts to preserve the estate and George Washington’s memory as the nation headed for civil war.


  • Dr. Scott Casper, President, The American Antiquarian Society
  • Dr. Lydia Mattice Brandt, Associate Professor of Art History, University of South Carolina
  • Rebecca Baird, Archivist, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington
  • Thomas Reinhart, Director of Preservation, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Dr. Douglas Bradburn, President and CEO, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • William Norwood Holland, Jr., J.D., retired, National Labor Relations Board
  • Dr. Jason Boroughs, Research Archaeologist, George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Full transcripts, show notes, and bibliographies available at


Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Episode 7: “Preserving”

Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and James P. Ambuske


Episode Published December 20, 2021



  • Brenda Parker, Coordinator of African American Interpretation and Special Projects, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Scott Casper, President, The American Antiquarian Society
  • Lydia Mattice Brandt, Associate Professor of Art History, University of South Carolina
  • Rebecca Baird, Archivist, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington
  • Thomas Reinhart, Director of Preservation, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Douglas Bradburn, President and CEO, George Washington’s Mount Vernon William Norwood Holland, Jr., J.D., retired, National Labor Relations Board
  • Jason Boroughs, Research Archaeologist, George Washington’s Mount Vernon


BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

PARKER: At the dawn of a new day, Edmund Parker rose out of bed, and got ready for work. He slept in the Washhouse at Mount Vernon.

Every other weekend, he would visit his wife, children, and grandchildren.

On most days, though, he prepared for the steady stream of visitors who came by steamboat, horse, or street car, to see Mount Vernon, and to pay their respects at George and Martha Washington’s tomb.

He donned a blue uniform with nickel-plated buttons. And he wore a silver badge on his chest. The badge told visitors that he was an employee of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. A free, wage-earning employee.

It was not always so.

Parker was born enslaved.  

In the 1840s, a Washington descendent brought him to Mount Vernon. Parker began laboring on the plantation as the national debate over slavery began to tear Washington’s Union apart.

It nearly did.

But now, he was free, free to earn by the sweat of his own brow.

With his uniform buttoned, and badge affixed, Parker left the Washhouse, which enslaved hands had built on the South Lane in George Washington’s time.

He walked down paths travelled by many people over the years, enslaved and free, towards the burial grounds overlooking the banks of the Potomac River.

Toward the final resting places of the Washingtons, and many people once enslaved at Mount Vernon.

Once he arrived at his station, Parker began his watch over the Washingtons’ Tomb. And waited for the visitors, and the questions, that would surely come.

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 7: “Preserving”

Edmund Parker arrived at Mount Vernon in 1841 at the age of fourteen when his enslaver, John Augustine Washington the III, brought him to the plantation.  By then, forty years had passed since Manumission Day, January 1, 1801, when Martha Washington freed her late husband’s enslaved people. When she died the following year, the enslaved people owned by the Custis estate were divided up among Martha’s four grandchildren, breaking the community apart.

By Manumission Day, Mount Vernon had grown to 8,000 acres, and stretched across five different farms. What would become of the Mansion House and the rest of the property after Martha’s death?

SCOTT CASPER: After George Washington died in 1799, the land was in the possession of his widow, Martha until her death in 1802. At her death, the provisions of Washington's will were carried out regarding the distribution of the land.

I'm Scott Casper, I'm President of the American Antiquarian Society, which is a research library and learned society founded in 1812 and based in Western Massachusetts.

Washington's nephew, Bushrod, who was a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, inherited roughly 4,000 of the roughly 8,000 acres that George Washington had owned at Mount Vernon. Bushrod Washington's 4,000 acres included the Mansion House Farm, which is the part that we today think of his Mount Vernon and Union Farm, which was another of George Washington five farms. So Bushrod Washington owned roughly 4,000 of those acres until he died in 1829. The rest of George Washington's acres went to an assortment of nephews and grand-nephews based on George Washington's will. At Bushrod's death in 1829, his 4,000 acres were then subdivided among several of his heirs, mostly nephews again, including his nephew, the second John Augustine Washington. The second John Augustine Washington was the grandson of George Washington's brother who was the first John Augustine Washington.

PARKER: For this next generation of Washingtons, the first president’s death gave them land and unwelcomed attention.

Within days of his demise, Americans began debating the best way to honor George Washington. Many Americans saw him as “the property of the nation,” and put forth several proposals to preserve his status as a national symbol.

Some wanted him buried in a crypt within the new capitol building that was then under construction in Washington, D.C.

Others wanted to build grand, ornate mausoleums to his memory.

Washington himself instructed his heirs to bury him in the family vault at Mount Vernon, until a new brick tomb could be constructed nearby.

As these conversations took place, Americans and foreign visitors began making pilgrimages to Mount Vernon in the early nineteenth century. Washington’s descendants struggled to deal with the often-unwanted company.

LYDIA MATTICE BRANDT: Even during Washington's lifetime, Americans were obsessed with knowing what Mount Vernon looked like, and in many ways, going there.

My name is Lydia Mattice Brandt, and I am Associate Professor of Art History at the University of South Carolina.

Tourism to Mount Vernon begins in the 19th century, after Washington's death and generations of the Washington's talk about living in a fishbowl because people were knocking on the doors and peeking in the windows. And by the last generations to live in the house, they had all moved upstairs because they really had to give over a lot of their private space within the mansion to people that were really interested and felt that they had a right to see Mount Vernon. So I say that, to give you a sense of the demand and the audience for images of Mount Vernon.

PARKER: If they couldn’t make the trip to Mount Vernon, Americans purchased prints of the Mansion House or objects decorated with its image to place in their own homes.

BRANDT: Images of Mount Vernon began to be produced and published in different venues before Washington's death in 1799 and really get rolling by the 1830s when the Washington family is less interested in holding back, and less cranky, frankly, about holding back these groups of tourists that feel the right and the need to see Washington's home.

Depictions of Mount Vernon from the beginning are really tight on the house, and I think that there's a couple of reasons for that, one is the house was just really identified with Washington. It was something that he was widely known to love and invest a tremendous amount of effort and money in. And so it becomes a kind of Avatar for him. But I think there's some things going on architecturally that make these images beginning in the 1790's, really tightly focused, that I'm using focus like a camera, really tightly cropped onto the house, no matter if you're talking about the side that faces the land or the side that faces the water. The house is kinda oddlooking. It is really long, it totally defies any kind of classical, even symmetry, it is not a symmetrical building, but it also has some funny features. It has this cupola, it has this little kind of dinky pediment, and then on the other side, it has this really, really long Portico, and so these architectural features made it really iconic because it didn't look like any other house. It also sits really high up from the river.

And most people, especially in the early 19th century, would have come to the house from the river. They would have come to the house on a steam boat, and they certainly would have seen it from the river. And anyone who's ever seen Mount Vernon from the river is like, wow, that's kind of a wild house. Whether you think it's beautiful or you think it's sort of weirdo, it sticks out and is impressive the way that it sits on that ridge. As far as enslaved people showing up in printed images or even paintings of Mount Vernon in the early 19th century, most often when enslaved people are depicted, they are really just little accents for the landscapes. They are just little picturesque figures, and the fact that they are depicted as African-American figures just would have reinforced the idea that this was a plantation, that this building was in the south, and that George Washington was a slave holder. Which is something that was very important to a lot of Americans, especially southerners in the decades leading up to the Civil War, that identification of Mount Vernon as a plantation and George Washington as a plantation owner.

Images of Mount Vernon that circulated and magazines that circulated as stand-alone prints that you could purchase and hang in your home, that circulated even on porcelain, they were produced on various ceramics. These images increased people's familiarity with the house and made people more attracted to it, and I think really buoyed American's understanding and interest in Mount Vernon and their sense that it was something that they had a right to go to and see.

PARKER: As the Washington Family dealt with Mount Vernon’s transformation into a kind of national shrine, death led to further division of the land.

CASPER: John Augustine II, owned Mount Vernon for three years until his untimely death in 1832, whereupon those acres, now about roughly 1,200 acres went to his wife, Jane Charlotte Washington, who was in fact also a niece of Bushrod Washington's wife. Jane Charlotte Washington owned those acres until in 1850, she deeded them to her son, who was the third John Augustine Washington. He had begun the management of that land back in 1841 as a young man of 20 or 21 years old, so in 1850, he becomes the owner of that land, and then in 1855, his mother, Jane Charlotte dies. So John Augustine Washington now owns roughly 1,200 acres of what had been... George Washington's roughly 8,000.

PARKER: John Augustine Washington III embraced historical tourism more than his ancestors had.

And as visitors flocked to Mount Vernon in the early 19th century, and more so by the 1840s and 1850s, enslaved people themselves became Mount Vernon’s first interpreters.

They told tales of George Washington as if they had known him in life, which most of them had not. Their stories delighted white visitors who made pilgrimages to Mount Vernon. Such yarns helped them to see Washington as more of a real person than the terse Washington who appeared in portraits.

It also made it possible for enslaved people to earn money from tourists grateful for the opportunity to commune with Washington’s memory, even if the story tellers had no real connection to the actual man. 

But as tourists came, the mansion slowly fell into disrepair. Visitors damaged the grounds and took souvenirs. The Washington Family charged entry fees, but it was not enough revenue to sustain what remained of the plantation.

The Mount Vernon depicted in print or on porcelain no longer matched reality.

BRANDT: The construction of the tomb in the 1830s is evidence of how conscious the Washington family was of people wanting to see and wanting to know more about Mount Vernon. They construct the new tomb in part because so many Americans were coming to Mount Vernon and writing really scathing letters to the newspaper and wherever, about, oh my goodness, you never believe the state of the tomb.

And all of this leads up to the creation of Mount Vernon as a historic site in the 1850s, and helps to explain how it became a historic site, really the first house museum with in situ simulated interiors in America. It had to have this decades of interest and information, visual information available to Americans in order to fuel ultimately the creation of that shrine.

CASPER: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association came about after a woman, named Louisa Cunningham saw Mount Vernon from aboard a boat passing by Mount Vernon on an evening in 1853. And as both did at the time, the boat tolled its bells as it went by Mount Vernon. Louisa Cunningham looked into the distance and saw Mount Vernon and saw that it was dilapidated. That the piazza, that is the grand porch overlooking the Potomac, seemed almost to be in a state of collapse. It's unclear to me how much she could have seen by moon light from a boat, however, she wrote a letter home to her daughter Ann Pamela Cunningham in South Carolina describing the dilapidated state of Mount Vernon and saying that somebody ought to say Mount Vernon. And if the men of America would not do so the women of America should. And Ann Pamela Cunningham took this as her rallying cry.

REBECCA BAIRD: Ann Pamela Cunningham was the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner down in South Carolina.

My name is Rebecca Baird. I'm the archivist of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

She was a single lady, she, in fact, she never married. She was actually ill most of her life. We don't know exactly what was her illness or what was the matter with her, but she seemed to be afflicted with something her entire life. And she would travel to Philadelphia to see a special doctor up there, that her parents sent her to go see, and he would try and give her the medication of the day to try and help her. A few of the things made her better, it seemed like, she would still always fall back into the same pattern of being ill again. So she did live at home with her family, but we remember her because she is the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is the first National Historic Preservation Organization in the United States. They are the owners of Washington's home at Mount Vernon. They became an incorporated association through the state of Virginia in 1858. But the organization was founded in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham. So today, they still are operating under the same functions and stuff as they did originally. They're a board of made up of all women, hence the name Ladies Association. They're usually made up of about between 20 and 30 women, all from different states. And they act as the Executive Board of an Historic Home. They're very significant because they were pretty much the first to do this, and they kind of started a lot of the preservation ideas and standards that we think of today, a lot of them stem from the Ladies Association and what they were trying to do.

PARKER: The organization Ann Pamela Cunningham founded in the 1850s still governs George Washington’s Mount Vernon today.

Under Cunningham’s leadership, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association began a campaign to buy Mount Vernon from John Augustine Washington III.

The Association started its work in the 1850s, as tensions between the North and South over the expansion of slavery drove the nation towards crisis.

Each side tried to claim George Washington as their own. Northerners who believed that Washington symbolized the American Union. And southerners, especially Virginians, who saw Washington as a native son, and defender of freedom against tyranny. 

Although their fundraising efforts initially mirrored those divisions, Cunningham’s work marked a rare moment of unity in a country on the brink of civil war.

BAIRD: She started out by writing editorials, we call them appeals, in newspapers, trying to get support from particularly other women. At first, she would address her editorials to the ladies of the South, because she was from the South, she wanted to appeal to women like her who were patriotic and loved Washington, and she almost wrote like a shame on you, shame on us for not doing something about this previously. And we better do something before it's too late, and she would always use eloquent language about Washington and how wonderful he was, and how revered he is, and we really need to save his home. So, sure enough other women answered her call and became interested in it, and so she got a few more women involved with her at the organizational level. And as soon as she had enough women dispersed throughout different states, it kind of continued to grow. They would also write appeals and editorials and papers, they would talk to their network of ladies, they started raising money, just through word of mouth, just through whatever little they could do, asking people for money.

The word eventually spread. The women from the North became interested and said, "Why aren't we involved in this? It doesn't have to be just ladies of the south, we wanna be involved too, 'cause we also love and revere Washington." So it just generated even more and more women into it.

PARKER: At first, Cunningham and her associates did not intend to own and operate Mount Vernon.

BAIRD: What they initially wanted to do was raise the money to buy Mount Vernon. John Augustine Washington, the third, who owned Mount Vernon at the time, he had made it very clear that he only wanted to sell Mount Vernon to the state of Virginia or the Federal Government. Anybody else, he wasn't really entertaining their bids or their offers to buy Mount Vernon. So the ladies originally wanted to raise enough money to buy Mount Vernon but they wanted to give it to the state of Virginia. Through their advisors, they decided to incorporate themselves as an association, and began raising the money. They did not have a promise from John Augustine Washington yet to sell Mount Vernon, but they still decided to start raising the money 'cause they knew they could make him come around in the end. And they tried to pass bills through the state assembly, to agree to take on Mount Vernon if they could purchase it. They tried to pass this bill again and again and again, and it never passed. And finally they did get John Augustine Washington on board, and they tried a couple of more times to get the bill passed through the state, and it did not. So finally, Washington and the MVLA kinda both decided, well, I guess we'll just buy it. Washington even said, “Well, next to the Federal Government or the state of Virginia, the ladies of the country are probably the next best people to take care of it.” 1858, they signed the agreement, and they had to raise the total, which is $200,000, in a couple of years. I think he gave them five years, but they paid it off within two years.

PARKER: With only a few years to come up with the funds, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association had to find a way to raise the money.

CASPER: Two hundred thousand dollars was an exorbitant price in 1855 or 1858 for 200 acres. John Augustine Washington essentially was raising the price because of the historic associations of Mount Vernon. So Ann Pamela Cunningham secured John Augustine Washington's permission to try to raise the money to purchase the 200 acres that we now think of his Monte Vernon. That is the 200 acres that include the mansion and the tomb of Washington.

BAIRD: It was kinda of a grassroots campaign. Miss Cunningham assigned a Vice Regent for each state, and that woman was kind of in charge of the fundraising in her state. But she also assigned the lady managers in different towns. So she would write to the women she knew in different towns within her state and to kind of ask them to go out in their communities and either host fundraisers or do lectures or speak to the public and try to get people involved and to give money. these lady managers would go out into their communities, raise even just a few cents here and there, and they would document who had given what, and they would send in the lists and the money into the national level board. They really wanted people to feel like they had donated to purchase a part of Mount Vernon themselves. They wanted people to feel like “I contributed to this And now Mount Vernon is held for the American people.” So that was the way they raised a lot of the money, they did hold, fundraisers, balls, parties. They also had a couple of famous people involved that would donate money that they raised to Mount Vernon. Probably the best example of this was Edward Everett, who was a statesman, also one of the greatest orators of his age. He did a series of lectures on the life of Washington. And he turned his speeches and his lectures into a book. Then the proceeds of all of that he donated to Mount Vernon and in the end, I think he donated about $69,000. There were other people who did similar things. There were some actors who donated their proceeds from certain nights that they performed, things like that.

It's kind of amazing that they were able to achieve this, given the time period that they were in, the country already was in horrible turmoil. They were definitely pointed towards a Civil War at this point, there was such a contention between the north and the south. It is amazing that she was able to these ladies together north and south and make them work together, and I think that the compelling thing to both sides was Washington. He could represent the north and he could represent the south. Because Washington was such a popular figure for the country, he was not divisive.

 PARKER: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association managed to raise the $200,000 and buy the Mansion House, and 200 acres of land that surrounded it, from John Augustine Washington III.

But now that the Association owned the property, what would they do with it? And what role would slavery and enslaved people play at Mount Vernon as the Association began its work, to preserve Washington’s home, for the American people?

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: John Augustine Washington III sold the Mansion House and the surrounding 200 acres to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association on the eve of the Civil War.

Washington the III was a controversial figure among northern abolitionists. He continued to buy, sell, and rent out Mount Vernon’s enslaved people in the years leading up to the Association’s purchase of the property. He drew scorn from the powerful editor of the New York Tribune, an abolitionist newspaper, who claimed that Washington the III had turned Mount Vernon into a “slave shamble,” for enslaving and renting out people.  

Some Americans also accused him of patriotic profiteering by leveraging George Washington’s memory, and Mount Vernon’s history, to set such a high purchase price.   

When the war broke out, Washington the III joined the Confederate Army and served as Robert E. Lee’s aide-de-camp. He was killed at the Battle of Cheat Mountain in September 1861.

The property’s sale, and the war, created new challenges for Mount Vernon’s enslaved community, and the Ladies who had purchased George Washington’s home.

Here’s Dr. Scott Casper

CASPER: The Mount Vernon Ladies Association took position practically as the Civil War's beginning, and they did not employ enslaved laborers. During the Civil War, they employed some free black workers, several of whom were West Ford's free family. The enslaved people who had been at Mount Vernon under John Augustine Washington III, were still enslaved to John Augustine Washington III, when the civil broke out. He took some of them to a new plantation that he had bought in Fauquier County, about 60 miles west of Mount Vernon.

PARKER: Enslaved people, including Edmund Parker, still labored on the part of the Mount Vernon property that Washington the III did not sell to the Association. In the years before the sale, he married an enslaved woman named Susan, whom John Augustine Washington III had purchased in 1852, for $585. Together, they would go on to have nineteen children, including two sets of twins.  

But free Black laborers worked in the Mansion House and on the accompanying 200 acres.

Using enslaved labor on the Association’s property would have been politically difficult, for an organization made up of northern and southern women.

And the war itself transformed Mount Vernon into neutral territory. In late May 1861, Union forces occupied Alexandria, Virginia, just to the north of the plantation. The Confederate Army had established picket lines at Pohick Church, just to the south.

In fact, during the war, Edmund Parker self-emancipated by fleeing to Union lines in Alexandria. He worked as a cook for the Union Army.

CASPER: During the Civil War, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association employs several free Black workers. Not many, because there's not much tourism during the Civil War. The steamboat that brought people to Mount Vernon was shut down for the duration of the war. Mount Vernon was run during the war by a man named Upton Herbert, who was designated as the Superintendent, and a woman named Sarah Tracy, who was Ann Pamela Cunningham's secretary. They lived at Mount Vernon, running the place, basically keeping it afloat and making it available more than anything to soldiers who would show up because there were military garrisons nearby, and the soldiers might want to see Mount Vernon. So, during the war, Mount Vernon is maintained by a skeleton crew. After the war, when Mount Vernon can be open to the public again, the Ladies Association needs employees. And where do they turn for their employees, but to the now freed former enslaved people of John Augustine Washington III. So, after the Civil War, somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen formerly enslaved people come back to Mount Vernon as wage-earning employees of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. They are, as far as I know, the first paid employees of an American historic preserved house.

They include, a couple named Nathan and Sarah Johnson. Nathan Johnson had been purchased by John Augustine Washington III, in 1856, to be his butler. When John Augustine Washington purchased Nathan Johnson, Nathan was married to a woman named Marietta and they had several children.

PARKER: In 1856, Washington the III paid $2,700 for Nathan, Marietta, and their four children, who ranged in age from seven weeks to ten years old.

CASPER: Marietta died around 1860. By 1865, when Nathan is back at Mount Vernon so is his second wife, Sarah Johnson, who is considerably younger than he. Sarah Johnson was born in 1844. Her mother's name was Hannah. Her father is unknown, and Sarah grew to girlhood and then to young womanhood as an enslaved child at Mount Vernon. She was rented out by John Augustine Washington to a household in Alexandria, at least for one year, and then after the Civil War in 1865, Sarah Johnson is back at Mount Vernon as the wife of the Butler, Nathan Johnson, and she is essentially the other major servant in the household of the Washington mansion. There are several other enslaved people who come back as well after the Civil War. By the 1870s and 1880s, there are more than a dozen formerly enslaved people living and working at Mount Vernon, and they are by in large, people who had been enslaved at Mount Vernon before the war now they are free employees.

PARKER:  The Civil War delayed the Association’s preservations efforts. But even if it hadn’t, when the Ladies began their work, they had no script to follow.

THOMAS REINHART: We’re the first real preservation organization in the United States, so there was no handbook of preserving historic sites that the ladies were referencing.

My name is Thomas Reinhart, and I am the Director of Preservation, at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

They were writing the book as they went. And then everybody else followed suit. So they clearly, at the very outset, have this nugget of the idea that anything that Washington did here was important to telling the story of the man.

DOUGLAS BRADBURN: This country has a unique tradition of historic preservation, unlike say in Europe, where things were preserved because they were the greatest example of the greatest artist or they're the greatest example of the greatest piece of architecture, or there's some sublime thing that human artifices has created, and therefore they stay in the test of time, and many of these things were created by the vanity of Aristocrats and Monarchs and others.

I'm Dr. Doug Bradburn, President and CEO of George Washington's Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon was saved not because it was the greatest piece of architecture, but because it was the home of the greatest citizen that this republic had ever created, and that is a civic ideal built into preservation echos in this country from the very beginning. It speaks to the role that citizens play in this country in the shaping of what our democracy means. It requires citizens who've been selfless, it requires citizens who serve the public. And so that was the example of George Washington that the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in the 19th century was trying to make sure persisted. The Ladies Association came together at a time when the country was undergoing extreme political stress, ultimately ending in the Civil War, and the idea is that if you can save the Father of our Country's house then somehow maybe you can bring people together. The First Ladies that saved Mount Vernon, of course, their official title is "The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union," and they were from all over the union, North and South. Some were slave owners, some were anti-slavers, some were abolitionists, and they came together to save this house, the Father their Country.

PARKER: It wasn’t just the Mansion that the Association had to worry about. The property also included the outbuildings that formed the core of Mansion House Farm.

Once again, Dr. Lydia Mattice Brandt.

BRANDT: The outbuildings are located along the lane that stretches in front of the mansion. and they include the quarters and kitchen that are on either side of the management connected by these curving walkways where you wait while you're waiting to get into the mansion if you come today. But they also included the kinds of buildings that most southern plantations had, such as a house or a building for smoking and storing meats, a building for storing salts, an office for the overseer who ran the plantation in Washington was away and so these buildings formed this little village.

It was the nerve center for this enormous and tremendously profitable business. When the ladies purchased the property in the 1850s, they don't have many pennies to rub together. So they are not gonna demolish anything 'cause one, demolition cost money. But they're not sure what the heck they're gonna do. There's no precedent for restoration in America, and our current working definitions of restoration and reconstruction and preservation, all codified by the National Park Service, they did not exist. They're over 100 years from existing. So, I don't think they really considered tearing down the outbuildings

REINHART: We do know that the recommendation was made to tear down everything but the house and the tomb, and the outbuildings were seen, and I do believe this is a quote, the word, "menials", the workplace of menials, so they weren't important. But what is clear from the start that the philosophy and the rhetoric that is used by Ann Pamela Cunningham and the early ladies, is that Mount Vernon as a place was the product of the vision of Washington. That includes where all those outbuildings went, how they functioned, and they clearly understood this.

PARKER: Today, historians do not fully agree on why the Ladies’ decided to preserve the outbuildings.

In time however, they will become a key part of the Association’s efforts to interpret Mount Vernon and slavery. But after the Civil War, preservation efforts focused on the Mansion itself.

CASPER: After the Civil War ends the Ladies Association mobilizes this whole campaign in which each of the Vice Regents takes a room in the mansion and agrees to furnish that room in the mansion. And at first they're not getting the original Washington family furniture back what they're doing is they're furnishing it from furniture stores in their own states, or they're getting colonial style furniture to come in, and it's only over time that they develop this mission to bring back the original furniture, but at first that furniture is so dispersed among heirs and people who aren't even heirs that, they just need to get furniture into rooms in order to make those rooms showable to the public. And the people who are doing that showing are formerly enslaved African Americans. That's the really interesting part of Mount Vernon from 1865 into the 1890s. The people who are on the ground there, week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out, are formerly enslaved African Americans, many of whom knew Mount Vernon, when it still belonged to the Washingtons and so could tell certain kinds of stories about Mount Vernon in the old days, which visitors tended to eat up as if they were stories of George Washington, which of course they weren't, because none of those enslaved people had ever belonged to George Washington.

PARKER: Free Black workers played an essential role in these early efforts by engaging directly with the public, who wanted to hear stories of George Washington.

CASPER: After the Civil War, Edmund Parker also returns to Mount Vernon as a paid employee. By the 1870's, Edmund Parker has a particular role to play at Mount Vernon, which he plays for more than 20 years. He is the man who sits at George Washington's tomb every day to tell the story of George Washington, and especially of George Washington's death and burial to visitors who come to pay reverence at Washington's tomb. And the story he tells at Washington's tomb over decades is a story about the father of his country, and a story about the patriotism of George Washington and the sacredness of this space, including the fact that after Jane Charlotte Washington died in 1855, the Washington heirs threw the key to the tomb into the Potomac, nobody could ever be buried inside it again. In other words, for more than 20 years, Edmund Parker told a story to tourist that had little or nothing to do with his own life story of seeking freedom.

He also didn't typically tell tourists the story of his own family, which included getting married and having more than a dozen children who did not live on site at Mount Vernon. They lived in Alexandria, and in fact, that was where his residence was as well, he would take the streetcar. Earlier, he was taking the boat to Mount Vernon on Monday morning and he would stay at Mount Vernon until Friday or Saturday, then he'd go back home to his home in Alexandria, so he might have seemed to tourists to be a relic of the old days of slavery, but in fact, he was living a life that was very much about freedom.

PARKER: Parker did more than watch over Washington’s tomb; he created an institution that was at the core of the Association’s preservation and educational efforts for decades.

CASPER: George Washington's tomb was a national shrine before Mount Vernon as a whole was. The tomb is a site of American reverence, and even before the civil war, people like West Ford had stood at Washington's tomb or guided visitors to Washington tomb. It's Edmund Parker, under the direction of the Ladies Association and under the direction of several of the white men who were the superintendents of Mount Vernon, it's Edmund Parker, who makes the role of guard at the tomb into a kind of occupation. And this starts in the 1870s. We know this because visitors accounts talk about listening to an African American man at Washington's tomb. This becomes such a central part of a visit to Mount Vernon that when Edmund Parker retires from Mount Vernon because he's dying of cancer in 1898, the superintendent of Mount Vernon, a man named Harrison Howell Dodge, realizes he needs another elderly African-American man to be the guard at Washington's tomb. And from 1898 until 1965, a series of other African American men are hired to play that role.

PARKER: When Edmund Parker fell ill, the Association paid him his monthly wage as a pension. It also paid his funeral expenses when he died, in December 1898. Superintendent Dodge began looking for the right men to play Parker’s role. 

CASPER: Several of them have long, in some cases, ancestral connections to enslaved people who had been at Mount Vernon in slavery days. So Edmund Parker successor is a man named Thomas Bushrod, who I believe was somehow connected by birth to people who had been enslaved to the Bushrod family, which was Bushrod Washington's mother's family. And over the years, a series of other men play this role and make no mistake, it was a role. They were speaking a kind of script about George Washington's death, about the sacredness of The Tomb, and also over time about the dignitaries who had come to that tomb. So Edmund Parker, for example, could talk about the time when the King of Brazil came to visit Washington's tomb and subsequent guards at the tomb told the same story. So this was a role that African-American men continued to play at Mount Vernon all the way until the mid-1960's.

WILLIAM NORWOOD HOLLAND: Uncle Will went to work at Mount Vernon in about 1915 and I think he was 17 years old or younger than that, maybe 15. He went to work at Mount Vernon as a butler, and he worked at Mount Vernon until he was 67. And they promoted him then to become a guard of the tomb, and during the 1940s and 50s,

My name is William Norwood Holland Jr. I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. I went to work for the National Labor Relations Board, and for about 30 years, I worked in law, and a number of law firms. I'm retired now, and reading and writing and doing research. And I am a part of what is being organized as the "League of Descendants of the Enslaved at Mount Vernon."

Uncle Will was a very popular figure at the tomb. He had this senatorial voice... Sort of booming, and it captured everyone's attention, and he gave his little speech about George and Martha Washington. And often times, there were a lot of high school students who were bought here on tour, and if they got too rowdy, that he would use that strong voice of his to bring order to the group and because I guess he became a very popular person here, and I guess the staff was sort of protective of him. Folks were concerned about him being in the elements. So they erected a booth, which is still there today... A wooden booth. It was built especially for him, and so whenever he got too cold or it was raining, he could step out of the elements into that booth. And I know this because of a story that appeared in Ebony magazine in 1954, as I say, he was a very popular figure at Mount Vernon then... And he sort of gained national prominence, people knew who he was.

CASPER: While the rest of Mount Vernon's speaking workforce, that is the rest of the tour guides, the rest of the people who are showing Mount Vernon to visitors by the early 20th century, and certainly by the mid-20th century, the rest of them were all white. The guard of the tomb was by the middle of the 20th century, the only African American person with a speaking role for tourists at Mount Vernon. And it was in a sense a vestige of old slavery days. It was a way for the tourists at Mount Vernon, who themselves were overwhelmingly white people, to be able to think of Mount Vernon as a kind of old time plantation with an old-time African American man representing a sort of idea that even George Washington's slaves had revered him. It was important that the guard of the tomb, be old. Not be a young man, but be an older man. In fact, Harrison Dodge, the superintendent, rejected some applicants for the position because they were too young, they didn't look the part. So it really is a part that conveys a certain respect to George Washington. It also conferred respect upon the African American man who played that part. And so it was at once a performance and also a job, a livelihood that paid a salary that somebody could live on.

PARKER: As West Ford, Edmund Parker, and other Black men stood watch over Washington’s tomb, Americans and foreign visitors would sometimes notice traces of another cemetery just nearby. 

JASON BOROUGHS: We have a lot of visitors accounts from the 1830s and 40s of people visiting the Washington's tomb, and they happen to kinda look over their shoulders and see something was happening about 150 feet away in the woods behind them, and it happens to be the largest burying ground that we know of for an enslaved population at Mount Vernon.

Dr. Jason Boroughs. I am the Research Archaeologist at George Washington's Mount Vernon, which is owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

We actually have a lithograph from 1855 that identifies that as the burying ground of the enslaved folks. So we kind of knew there was a cemetery there and it's directly next to the tomb.

PARKER: By the 1920s, the cemetery had become slightly overgrown and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association knew they needed to preserve it.

Here’s Rebecca Baird.

BAIRD: The MVLA has lots of committees within their council and they all take on different projects. Well, this came through advice from the tomb committee in 1928 when they gave this recommendation, the grave yard for the enslaved community was still visible, you could still see traces of it, you could still see graves, you could maybe even see a few markers, and they noticed you could tell less and less that it had been a graveyard and they were afraid, that all traces of it are eventually gonna go away, and we need to show that this was a grave yard. We need to make sure that people know that Washington's enslaved community was buried here. And that's what it was used for.

Mrs. Maxi, I think from Texas was the Chairwoman of the committee, and she was quite an activist during her time, so it's kind of no surprise that she was one of the ones who came up with this. And then it was another lady, I think from Rhode Island, Mrs. Brown, who said that she wanted it to be a permanent marker, so she recommended putting it in stone, some kind of more permanent stone to make sure that it was always preserved, and then Mrs. Jennings from Connecticut said that she would pay for it.

This marker was placed 1929, and we think it was probably one of the first ones at a historic place, it was a place marking enslaved people.

CASPER: The inscription on that memorial goes like this: "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.” The language of that memorial is very much of a piece with the 1920's. It's also in the 1920's that the United Daughters of the Confederacy proposed creating a monument in Washington, DC to the figure of the African American Mammy that would have glorified the idea of African American women serving the families of white people. That memorial never got built, but there were Mammy memorials erected in other parts of the United States by the United Daughters of Confederacy and by local organizations.

What we see in other words, in this 1920's memorial at Mount Vernon, a memorial to “the faithful colored servants” is a memorial to obedience, faithful, loyal slaves who would not have thought to question the authority of George Washington, and who in fact almost made slavery seem like a more benign institution by their faithfulness to their owners. This is a theme that's everywhere in white popular culture in the 1920s and 1930s, we see it in "Gone with the Wind." We see it in all kinds of areas of American culture. So what the Ladies Association is doing, I think, is at once paying real respect to the enslaved people who have worked at Mount Vernon. They're serious. This is not meaningless to them, and at the same time, they're doing so very much in the paternalistic language of the 1920's.

PARKER: The installation of the memorial to the enslaved community in 1929 represented a significant moment of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association’s efforts to interpret slavery at the property.

By that point, Black Americas, both enslaved and freed, including Edmund Parker had been playing a crucial role in preserving George Washington’s memory and interpreting Mount Vernon for well over a century.

The stories they told shaped the experiences of visitors to Mount Vernon for generations.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was the first historic preservation organization in the United States. How would the organization interpret and education visitors about slavery at Mount Vernon in the years after the construction of the 1929 marker? And what role would the descendent community play in these efforts?

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. 

Lydia Mattice BrandtProfile Photo

Lydia Mattice Brandt

Associate Professor

Lydia Mattice Brandt is an associate professor of art and architectural history at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Brandt has authored The South Carolina State House Grounds: A Guidebook (UofSC Press, 2021), First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination (2016), and articles on American architecture in Winterthur Portfolio, The Public Historian, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (forthcoming 2021), and numerous book chapters. Her current research explores the southern plantation house in popular visual culture. She graduated from New York University and the University of Virginia.

Rebecca BairdProfile Photo

Rebecca Baird


Rebecca has worked as the archivist for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) for 6 years. She is responsible for acquiring, organizing, and providing access to the institutional records of the MVLA. Rebecca became a Certified Archivist (CA) in 2012 and a Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) through the Society of American Archivists in 2014. She received a master’s of library science (MLS) from Emporia State University and a BA in History and French from Texas Tech University. Before joining the Washington Library’s staff in 2015, Rebecca worked as an archivist for the Daughters of the American Revolution for 8 years.

William Norwood HollandProfile Photo

William Norwood Holland

Norwood Holland grew in Gum Springs, attended Fisk University and Howard University School of Law. He's a writer and operates his own publishing imprint and tour guide business.

Jason BoroughsProfile Photo

Jason Boroughs


Jason Boroughs holds a PhD in anthropology from the College of William and Mary. With over 25 years of field experience excavating historic sites throughout America and the Caribbean, his research and publications focus on Atlantic plantation communities through enslavement and emancipation. He has held a variety of research and teaching positions in institutions such as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Jamestown Rediscovery, and Salisbury University. He has served as Mount Vernon’s research archaeologist since 2016.

Thomas ReinhartProfile Photo

Thomas Reinhart

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.

Scott CasperProfile Photo

Scott Casper

President / American Antiquarian Society

Scott Casper is President of the American Antiquarian Society, a national research library of American history and culture in Worcester, MA. He is the author of Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine (2008), and the author or editor of eight other books.
He was previously dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Foundation Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Reno. For more than twenty years he has worked with K-12 educators through the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the Center for Civic Education, and the Northern Nevada Teaching American History Project, and for a decade he edited the "Textbooks and Teaching" section of the Journal of American History.

Douglas Bradburn, Ph. D.Profile Photo

Douglas Bradburn, Ph. D.

President & CEO

Douglas Bradburn, President and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the former Founding Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, is an award-winning author and well-known scholar of early American history.

Dr. Bradburn is the author of The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774-1804, and three anthologies including Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, the most significant book produced to mark the 400th anniversary of the English founding of Jamestown. He is the co-founder and editor of the award-winning book series, Early American Histories, at the University of Virginia Press, and the winner of numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, including the yearlong Gilder Lehrman Research Fellowship at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.

He is the recipient of two Telly awards for his work on the animated documentaries, Now or Never and A More Perfect Union: George Washington’s Constitution, and a “Thea” award for the popular Be Washington interactive educational game. Dr. Bradburn has appeared on CSPAN, Good Morning America, CBS Sunday Morning, and was most recently featured in the History’s channels docudrama, WASHINGTON.

Before coming to Mount Vernon, Bradburn served as Chair of the History Department at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago and his B.A. in history and economics from the University of Virginia.