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Slavery at Mount Vernon

Behind the scenes at Washington’s estate.

Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Portrait of George Washington’s Cook by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1795–1797. ©Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

A copper house bell once nailed to the exterior of Mount Vernon rings with meaning for UMass Amherst alum Jessie MacLeod ’12G. “The house bells were connected with wires and pulleys to various rooms,” she explains. “The system reveals how enslaved household workers were always on call. George and Martha Washington’s hospitality was celebrated; it’s important for us to think about the people who had no choice but to perform the labor behind that hospitality.” 

As lead curator for a monumental new exhibition, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, MacLeod helped determine how to help visitors to the Virginia plantation envision the real people who toiled in Washington’s home and fields. The exhibition includes household objects, art, interactive displays, and Washington’s meticulous records. “We know a tremendous amount about the daily workings of the plantation,” she says, down to when the enslaved people were sick, their work assignments, when they attempted to run away, and their family relationships.

Washington famously decided to free the slaves he owned in his will. “Over the years, he became increasingly ambivalent about the institution of slavery,” MacLeod says. “After the American Revolution, he stopped buying and selling enslaved people and privately supported a gradual legislative end to slavery. But as president, he wanted to unify the nation, so he avoided denouncing slavery publicly. Financial concerns also stopped him from emancipating his slaves before his death.”

For MacLeod, the most gratifying part of curating her first major exhibition was her ongoing contact with the descendants of the enslaved people of Mount Vernon. “Studying public history at UMass Amherst, we were encouraged to share authority and collaborate with stakeholders in historical projects,” she says. “This has been an immensely emotional experience.”

Lives Bound Together opened at Mount Vernon in October 2016 and will run through September 2018.