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Noting slavery's place in history

At Mount Vernon, Monticello and other sites, reconstruction of slave cabins aims to give a fuller picture
September 30, 2007
The Los Angeles Times

MOUNT VERNON, VA. -- The homes of the nation's first presidents receive as much care and attention as any historic sites in the nation. Special societies raise money to preserve and protect them. Researchers dote on the finest points of their architecture and family heritage.

But until recent years, there was little focus on a painful reality in the history of several of the founding fathers: George Washington, who led the Colonial forces seeking freedom from the British; Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence proclaimed the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"; and James Madison, who wrote the Constitution "in order to . . . secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," all owned slaves.

"How do you deal with the fact that Jefferson's a national hero, Madison and Washington were heroes, and they all had slaves?" asked James Oliver Horton, a history professor at George Washington University who focuses on slavery. "Most people try to ignore it."

That is changing.

The most famous -- and most visited -- presidential home, Washington's Mount Vernon, has just added a piece of history that has long been known but, until now, was not really visible -- a reconstructed slave cabin, similar to those that housed the slaves who worked the fields of its outlying farms.

The tiny cabin -- with its crudely cut log exterior, rough pallet on the floor and bare loft -- stands in stark contrast to Washington's 11,400-square-foot mansion five miles away, with its opulent furnishings, white-pillared veranda and vistas of the Potomac River.

Construction of the 16-by-14-foot dwelling was based in part on a 1908 photo of a dilapidated slave cabin, one of many that once dotted the 8,000-acre estate. In a letter written in 1798, a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon described "the huts of the Blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses," as "wretched" and "more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants."

But that jolt of despair, said Sheila Coates, president of Black Women United for Action, is what Mount Vernon needed. Before the dedication of the cabin Sept. 19, the only depiction of slave life at Mount Vernon was a dormitory-style brick structure reconstructed on the farm nearest the mansion. The original residence -- part of the estate's greenhouse, which burned down in the mid-1800s -- housed 97 house servants and craftsmen, the "elite" of the estate's 316 slaves.

"There are people who saw those slave quarters and would think, 'Well, the slave didn't have it so bad,' " said Coates, whose group had pushed for years for a realistic representation of how the field slaves lived.

The cabin interprets the lives of actual slaves on one of Mount Vernon's farms: a married couple, Slammin' Joe and Silla, and their six children. Inside are their rations, salted fish and two sacks of cornmeal; outside are a small vegetable garden and a chicken coop that they used to supplement their diet. "In order to fully understand what their lives were like, visitors must see how they lived," said Dennis J. Pogue, Mount Vernon's director of preservation.

Acknowledging slave ownership "is much more common than it was 20 years ago," he said. "It's still a topic that people would like us to deal with more."

Other presidential homes in Virginia are taking similar steps.

At Monticello, Jefferson's home near Charlottesville, communications director Wayne Mogielnicki said construction would soon begin on the slave cabins and workshops along Mulberry Row, an area near the main house where root cellars, thousands of artifacts and cabin foundations were excavated 30 years ago.

Tour guides discuss Jefferson's slave ownership, along with the belief that he fathered one or more children born to Sally Hemings, a house slave.

So far, though, the only depiction of slave life at Monticello is the restored cook's quarters, a comfortably furnished 10-by-14-foot room next to the home's expansive kitchen.

Ash Lawn-Highland, James Monroe's estate near Monticello, rebuilt quarters for a house slave in 1985. The executive director, Carolyn Holmes, said the long-term plan was to reconstruct the homes of the field slaves, "when we have documentation present."

And there are promises of reconstructed slave quarters within the next decade at Montpelier, James Madison's home near Orange, Va., where a freedman's cabin dating from the 1800s has been restored. "As far as we know, it's the only freedman's home in Virginia," said Christian Cotz, the estate's student education coordinator.

But where presidents' homes have, until now, lacked concrete depictions of the difficult lives of the slaves who worked there, other historical sites in Virginia have shown slaves' contributions to Colonial America and the conditions in which they lived.

"It may not be the world through rose-colored glasses, but it is an essential element for the history of this nation, and you cannot ignore it," said Jim Bradley, a spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

At Carter's Grove, a plantation along the James River eight miles from Williamsburg, four slave cabins were reconstructed in the late 1980s, after archaeological excavations a decade earlier revealed remnants of slaves' home lives. The historic area in Williamsburg itself offers reenactments of slaves' daily lives in a thriving Colonial town.

"At the time of the American Revolution, slightly over half of the population of Williamsburg was of African descent," Bradley said. Without slave labor, "a tremendous amount of accomplishments would have been impossible."

Although presidential homes have acknowledged on their tours that the founding fathers did own slaves, said Horton, the historian at George Washington University, they are years behind Williamsburg in bringing the difficulties of slaves' daily existence to life. "Freedom-loving" Americans just can't deal with slavery, he said.

"All these national heroes were doing things that we thought were evil," Horton said. "Even in their society, people knew they were hypocritical."