JUST in time for Black History Month and Presidents Day comes "Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon," Scott E. Casper's well-researched and welcome attempt to flesh out yet another national moment that fails to include the participation of African Americans -- here, the efforts to preserve and protect the estate of George Washington.
The choice of Mount Vernon as backdrop for an all-too-common story of black marginalization has more ironies than usual; the home of America's first president and formative leader, Mount Vernon is a shrine that has functioned as a kind of stem cell for America itself -- the source of its beginning and all its noble possibilities. But it is also the source of some of America's foibles, starting with slavery. It is the space between the two that Casper explores, through the prism of black life at Mount Vernon.
It's a tough assignment. Casper must piece the prism together from many sources: newspapers, ledgers, court records, correspondence among the members of Mount Vernon's governing body. But the efforts pay off. His account is evenhanded and scrupulously detailed, yet always emotionally connected to the life of housekeeper Sarah Johnson (1844-1920) and dozens of other blacks, slave and free, who lived and worked at Mount Vernon for generations in virtual anonymity.
Casper is not as overtly indignant as, say, David Blight in his seminal book "Race and Reunion," which recounts how the cause of black freedom and a black narrative were buried after the Civil War. Yet Casper argues for that narrative on every page, revealing small but significant facts -- who moved in or moved on, who accepted what duties, who bought what land, who might be feeling hopeful or discouraged -- that have cumulative power. Mount Vernon was a far more complicated place for black residents than for whites, because it represented three fundamentals that blacks were constantly trying to establish: work, home and a sense of national pride.
George Washington's slaves were freed after his death in 1799, but not the slaves Martha had acquired during her first marriage. Other heirs brought their own slaves to Mount Vernon when Martha died. Some of the property was bought in 1859 by the Mount Vernon Ladies Assn., a prototype historical group, fractious but close-knit, that treated Mount Vernon's blacks better than the blacks living outside its gates, but hardly as equals.
The ladies' fondness for Sarah Johnson, her husband Nathan and other black workers was simply a more refined version of Southern paternalism. Yet there was nuance. The racial dynamic within the MVLA was not all about dominance and capitulation, or dominance and resistance. Casper writes that blacks felt a real stake in preserving Mount Vernon, a mission that created a certain synergy between them and their employer.
But that mission also meant different things: The MVLA wanted to maintain Mount Vernon as a shrine, untouched by worldly realities -- notably the Civil War. Although blacks might have appreciated a respite from reality, they hadn't the luxury of living in a bubble. For them, preservation of Mount Vernon was also about self-preservation. Sarah and the others hoped to prove indispensable to the system in order to secure wages sufficient to buy land and assure their own futures. Sarah and Nathan ran a lunchroom for visitors, employing other folks in the process. When tradesmen boarded at Mount Vernon, Sarah pocketed up to 60 cents a day for each man she fed. She also earned commissions of 3 to 5 cents for selling the authorized guidebook and Benson Lossing's history of Mount Vernon.
But indispensability came at a price. Visitors to Mount Vernon expected its blacks to be "old time Negroes" of the faithful-servant variety they associated with the era. Like actors at Disneyland wandering around as Mickey and Minnie, Mount Vernon's black servants, cooks and farmhands were expected to create an atmosphere -- one of racial subservience. There was no minstrelsy at Mount Vernon -- it was too dignified a place for that -- but perform they did. The guardian of Washington's tomb was a job most famously executed by Sarah Johnson's uncle, Edmund Parker. The MVLA filled the position with a string of elderly black "uncles," with nearly identical white beards and down-home accents. The irony is that whites saw the black presence at Mount Vernon as the most authentic feature of the place, partly because they assumed that most of the blacks were descendants of Washington's slaves. Blacks didn't dispel the fiction ("Belonged to the family," they'd say), because it was more or less their job not to.
Casper likens Mount Vernon to a theme park more than once. The danger of such a sacred place being turned into a "catchpenny" circus was a concern voiced frequently by the MVLA as it struggled to stay above the forces of politics, economic reality and technological advances that eventually brought crowds to Mount Vernon on streetcars instead of Potomac River steamboats.