I visited Mt. Vernon this week. When I told people where I was going or where I had just been, all said the same thing, “O, I love Mt. Vernon.”
It was mid week, mid morning, and freezing. Possibly due to all these, the crowds were not only thin, but unusually grey. The army of tour guides, all dressed in Navy blue with red trim, reminiscent of the colonial army, walked small groups of elderly folks in furs and suits. Everyone was cordial, knowledgeable, and surprisingly efficient. At one point there was a changing of the guard, of sorts, and our tour guides switched out mid-sentence, one finishing the other’s phrase without missing a beat. In the house and the adjoining museum I saw the General’s sword, the businessman’s study, and the gentleman’s false teeth. The museum sports what is touted as the most accurate sculpture of George Washington’s likeness, used as a baseline for which scientists did aging analysis to recreate Mr. Washington at various points in his life accurately. It was impressive and interesting. There was a bit of living history with a blacksmith, a camel (records show the President rented a camel to impress guests), and even demonstration of our first presidents primary import; chocolate. I like chocolate. I learned the Washington’s drank a lot of chocolate. Did I say I like chocolate?
Visiting such locations is a wonderful way to bring to life those of whom we only know in books and paintings. There is much to be said about walking where those who shaped today, walked back then. I like to see the items they touched and saw, things that were there then and are still here now. The continuous existence of objects creates a sort of connection through time. There is value in this experiencing history, yet I found this place to be disappointing. I was disappointed in the same way many others are, and it makes me tired.
The estate at Mt. Vernon had over 70 slaves in residence. While I was there I saw one black person, I high schooler flirting with a girl while the teacher attempted to hurry them to a bus.
Slavery was not ignored, the barracks were well restored and explained, the museum had a wall dealing with the “dilemma”, and the bookstore had its black history section. I thought there should be more.
I suppose some, many rather, may tire of me seeing and talking of slavery everywhere. I understand that. George Washington did in fact do many great things and helped shape my modern existence. To deny that his contributions and accomplishments qualify him as great would be historically inaccurate and ignorant, as would be the ignoring of slavery. I suppose I would say to those who say I see slavery too much, that I don’t see it nearly as much as Mr. Washington did.
Our modern sensibilities and preferences don’t wish to have the brush of race painted over every little thing. It is tiresome and old. But if we are to preserve and learn from our past, we need to do it honestly. To ignore such a large part of our history truly handicaps our understanding of today. Sure slavery was hundreds of years ago, but so was George Washington.