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Records, Descendants Help Weave Stories Of George Washington's Slaves

A new exhibit at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation house explores the complexity of the first president's relationship with the slaves he owned that lived and worked there. Tom is the first of the 19 slaves profiled throughout the exhibit, which opened on Oct. 1.

Rohulamin Quander's ancestors were slaves.

However, unlike a majority of the enslaved population, Sucky Bay and Nancy Carter Quander served George and Martha Washington, the first First Family, and worked on their Mount Vernon farms.

Now, hundreds of years after they worked as spinners on the estate's River Farm, Sucky Bay, Carter Quander and the rest of the 317 slaves who inhabited Mount Vernon are receiving the recognition they deserve.

In a new exhibit, "Lives Bound Together: Slavery At George Washington's Mount Vernon," visitors can take a closer look at just how intertwined the Washingtons' lives were with the slaves on their property. The exhibit allows those moving through the galleries to gain a deeper understanding of how slaves supported and provided for those on Mount Vernon. While Washington helped establish the United States as a free country, they played an integral part in preserving life on the estate.

Quander has long been involved in preserving the history of slaves at Mount Vernon. Between laying wreaths at the slaves' burial site to holding his 85th family reunion on the grounds in 2010, Quander has made sure to continue to tell the stories of his ancestors and other slaves who served the Washingtons. This exhibit was no exception. He offered his advice and thoughts as it came together. The point of the exhibit is not to sugarcoat the subject of slavery or portray all the slaves as a happy group of workers, Quander said.

"We were focused more on telling the story of those who lived through the experience and achieved what they did achieve despite the impact of the experience," Quander said. "We wanted to show them, despite the fact that they had very little to no education, we wanted to show them as real people and we wanted to show them in the context of how they survived in spite of everything."

Telling those stories is what the museum has done by featuring 19 individual slaves and their backstories including what work they did at Mount Vernon, their relatives, and, at times, quotes from Washington's records about the slaves.

Before deciding which slaves would be chosen for the exhibit, the museum's researchers were tasked with creating a database with more than 35,000 individual entries of Washington's records says senior curator Susan Schoelwer.

"When we were picking the individuals, we wanted to represent, a range of experiences, both enslaved people who worked in the mansion and enslaved people who worked in the fields, who were much less well known," Schoelwer said. "We wanted to represent women, we wanted to represent men."

After giving input for different aspects of the exhibit for a few years prior, Quander had the chance to experience the new installation in its entirety on Oct. 1. When he finished walking through the galleries, Quander said he does believe the museum accurately portrayed the institution of slavery at Mount Vernon.

"We wanted to portray it accurately, we also wanted it to be very clear to anybody who saw it that is was about the lives of the people and the fact that they were in bondage — if not physically bound, then psychologically bound because of the institution," he said.

For those who have visited Mount Vernon before, certain pieces like the dining set will look familiar, but the context in which they are presented has changed. The focus now centers around how slaves would have contributed to a seemingly routine function, like dinner, and to what extent they were involved. The 19 individuals' stories are found all across the galleries, where each focuses on an aspect of the Washingtons' lives and compares it to that of their slaves including clothing styles, diet variation and differences in belongings. A lot of the slaves' belongings were recovered through decades of archaeological digs and excavation projects on the grounds.

Schoewler says the exhibit really focuses on the interconnectivity between the First Family and the slaves.

Such focus can be seen in the juxtaposition of two portraits. One is Gilbert Stuart's iconic portrait of George Washington. The other is a portrait which is attributed to Stuart and believed to be of Washington's beloved cook, Hercules. Much is known about Hercules' life as he was with Washington during his presidency, often called the first celebrity chef and allowed more flexibility to walk around town and operate outside of the residency often. Yet, Hercules, who was still a slave, ran away.

Documents and letters in the exhibit also give insight into George Washington's changing views on slavery throughout his life. The hope is that visitors will be able to reconcile an often difficult realization that George Washington, like other Founding Fathers, had slaves while also fighting for the ideals of liberty and freedom that helped establish the country.

"During the revolution, his views really began to change and he began to question morality both pragmatically and philosophically, and then during the presidency he's personally, as indicated, having more and more qualms about slavery, and really searching for ways to extricate himself from having slavers, perhaps trying to rent out the farms to a farmer who would not be [using slaves,]" Schoewler said.

Both Schoewler and Quander said continuing conversations about the institution of slavery and the role it played at Mount Vernon are important beyond visiting the exhibit.

"We want people to see that this did not exist in isolation, that George Washington did not exist in isolation, but that he functioned in society and that those men and women who worked so very hard to make him be who he became deserve the appropriate recognition for their unsung work that so many of them did," Quander said. "We are hoping that this will come through in the essence of this exhibit as they go through it."

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