Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon The Forgotten History of an American Shrine

Scott E. Casper

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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The home of the first president of the United States has come to symbolize the ideals of our nation: freedom, national solidarity, and universal democracy. At Mount Vernon, the memories of George Washington and the era of America's formation are carefully preserved and re-created for the nearly one million tourists who visit it every year. Behind the familiar stories is a history that visitors never hear. Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon recounts the experience of the hundreds of African Americans who are forgotten in Mount Vernon's narrative.

Historian and archivist scholar Scott E. Casper recovers the remarkable history of former slave Sarah Johnson, who spent more than fifty years at Mount Vernon, before and after emancipation. Through her life and the lives of her family and friends, Casper provides an intimate picture of Mount Vernon's operation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, years that are rarely part of its story. Working for the Washington heirs and then the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, these African Americans played an essential part in creating the legacy of Mount Vernon as an American shrine. Their lives and contributions have long been lost to history and erased from memory. Casper restores them both, and in so doing adds a new layer of significance to America's most popular historical estate.


Praise for Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon

"Before elaborate monuments and lavishly funded libraries preserved the memories of our presidents, there was Mount Vernon. After George Washington's death in 1799, his home and tomb in Virginia became the first temple to a U.S. president, an 'American Westminster Abbey,' in the words of University of Nevada history professor Scott E. Casper. Yet, for many years the history of slavery at Mount Vernon remained hidden in plain sight behind its graceful, carefully maintained facade. Now, at last, Casper tells the story of the invisible men and women who worked the 8,000-acre riverfront estate for generations. While innumerable books have been written in recent years about the Founding Fathers, it's refreshing to read one in which slaves play a central part. Washington may have helped create our republic, but slaves built and upheld its economic infrastructure. In Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon, Casper reminds us that they were founders, too . . . Casper builds his narrative largely around Sarah Johnson, who was born a slave at Mount Vernon in 1844 to a teenage mother and was trained as a domestic servant. After emancipation, she was employed by the Ladies Association as a cook and maid, keeping the estate ready for its daily visitors. She ‘drew upon lessons from slavery days,' Casper writes, and ‘played a featured role in the Mount Vernon that visitors saw, as she courteously sold them milk for five cents a glass.' On Sarah Johnson's death in 1920, the flags at Mount Vernon flew at half mast. The superintendent who ordered this gesture 'meant no statement about racial equality,' Casper notes. 'In his words, the flag commemorated a "faithful ex-servant of M.V.," a woman who had earned respect by knowing her place.' But during her lifetime, she went from slave to landowner and even took on some managerial duties at Mount Vernon. Like most former slaves, Johnson was illiterate, which presents a challenge in telling her story; she did not leave behind any letters or diaries. The details of her life are drawn from the papers of people who owned her and those who eventually employed her, as well as documents and agreements that may have been read to her but that she could sign only with an 'X.' For a historian, it's difficult to capture a subject's voice without her own words. But Casper deftly uses the limited sources available to depict Johnson's life with an authenticity that is moving. At the same time, he intertwines her story with accounts of other black men and women who tended Mount Vernon over the years, many of them her relatives. And he shows how the lives of African Americans at Mount Vernon mirrored the changes taking place beyond the presidential shrine. By the time Johnson and her relatives left Mount Vernon, visitors were no longer arriving by integrated steamboats but by segregated street cars, a sign of the rise of Jim Crow. There is no marker at Mount Vernon commemorating Sarah Johnson's contribution to its preservation. Fortunately, Scott Casper has given her a written memorial, and it is altogether fitting and proper."—W. Ralph Eubanks, The Washington Post Book World

"[A] 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 . . . 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. Blacks admired for their old-time gentility and authenticity were also accused of running hustles, such as selling canes purportedly made from Mount Vernon's trees. (Casper notes that visitors routinely cut their own canes and pilfered other souvenirs from Mount Vernon without being similarly condemned.) Blacks constantly strove to balance such burdens of representation with personal ambitions they realized whenever and however they could. But Casper admits that they were undermined both by Mount Vernon's history and a larger national destiny of racial inequality. As Jim Crow became the law of the land, Sarah Johnson and other black employees were largely replaced by whites. The streetcars that appeared around the turn of the 20th century featured separate-but-equal seating. At Sarah's death, the flag at Mount Vernon flew at half-mast—but she was buried in a black cemetery, several miles away. Today, Casper writes on the last page with a mixture of mettle and regret, 'Sarah Johnson's name appears nowhere on George Washington's hallowed grounds. But it will always be her Mount Vernon too.'"—Erin Aubry Kaplan, Los Angeles Times

"In Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon, historian Scott E. Casper lays bear the unique narrative of America's first sacred shrine, capturing the dizzying complexity of an early American community largely unrecognized and misunderstood. After all, Mount Vernon, writes Casper, is 'a story not just of Washington but also of black people named Parker and Smith, Johnson and Ford.' Casper's historical review does not focus exclusively on Sarah Johnson. But even a brief sketch of her life—born into slavery at Mount Vernon to a teenage mother in 1844, a paid servant after the Civil War, and finally an owner of a tiny farm in the middle of Mount Vernon's acreage—hints at a remarkable life. Casper tries to piece together the loose ends (who was married to whom) and dead ends (who got sold off) to create the story of a network of people who perpetually returned to Mount Vernon simply because it was all they ever knew . . . At its core, Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon is a narrative of people—free and unfree, black and white—who lived and worked, fought and died there. Who was related to whom is never entirely clear, and Casper does his best to focus on the truly important history. He does not shy away from the uncomfortable racial stereotypes as the history books recorded them. For example, Casper includes a 1906 newspaper account describing Sarah Johnson, who had become an MVLA council member after living and working at Mount Vernon for 40 years, as 'a colored mammy of extreme respectability.' Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon provides a thoroughly comprehensive . . . perspective of America's first sacred shrine. As Casper concludes: 'On America's revised mythic landscape, slavery and freedom are juxtaposed nowhere more starkly than at the Virginia plantation that America's founding fathers and their African American slaves shared' . . . A shared history worth exploring."—Richard Horan, The Christian Science Monitor

"It is not a simple thing to explain the complexities of American slavery, the ramifications of emancipation or the status of antebellum blacks in American society. Add these mysteries to the iconic acreage of Mount Vernon, the home of the 'father of our country,' with its weighty emotional overtones of the American Revolution, and you have a national cultural enigma in miniature. Scott Casper shines a bright light on these historical footnotes through an obscure corner of the American story. Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon is a social and political history of the early preservation efforts at Mount Vernon, a process revealed through the history of its black labor force. Sarah Johnson, who was both a slave and a free woman at the plantation, and her family are an integral part of that story."—Rodney Barfield, The Roanoke Times

"Casper's Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon chronicles the transformation of George Washington's Mount Vernon from an aristocratic family dwelling to a historical place of pilgrimage. Integral to the story is the remarkable history of Sarah Johnson, a former slave, and her family who worked on the property for over fifty years. Through an intricate menagerie of family genealogies and fictive kin networks, the worlds of black and white merged and influences the life, death, and figurative resurrection of Washington and the chief symbol of his ever-growing mythical past: Mount Vernon. In Casper's treatment we learn just as much about the supernumeraries as we do the lead characters. We learn about their lives, the significant ways they shaped, and were shaped by, the various owners of Mount Vernon, and their struggles to keep the holy grail of America's beginnings in the forefront of America's search for itself—particularly during the years following the Civil War. From the time of Washington's and the transition of the site from a residence to an iconic rite of passage, African Americans—first as slaves, then sharecroppers, and finally as domestics, museum workers, interpreters, historians, and entrepreneurs—shaped Mount Vernon in profound ways. Casper strikingly reveals what went on in the 'big house' and in the 'back of the big house.' He convincingly proves that the survival of Mount Vernon has been the result of complex negotiations between master and slave, and later between owner and worker, and between superintendents and employees. In the middle of that mix was Sarah Johnson. Her life, as told by Casper, chronicles the transformation of a woman coming to terms with her identity as a 'faithful servant,' one who manages to evolve despite the cultural, racial, and social realities of her times. The movement from slavery to freedom was slow at Mount Vernon, in most cases deliberately so. The slowness was both self-imposed and premeditated. There were those in the African American community who embraced their roles as stewards of a bygone era, as well as those who refused to accept the social boundaries placed on them that their keepers were all too eager to enforce. We learn that the creation and perpetuation of Mount Vernon's environment experienced differing degrees of success over the years. Casper allows us a peek into this double-sided story and peels away the faded paint so that we can see clearly the liabilities of the revered, as well as the emasculation of the marginalized. In the face of those realities steps Johnson, slowly, methodically, learning along the way the secrets of job security and the difference between who held title but was not in charge and who had no title but was. Such understanding helped Sarah and her family see chances for upward mobility, which could only come from a keen sense of what was possible, what was probable, and what was impossible. On her journey, Johnson witnesses the transformation of Mount Vernon and its multiple iterations: from the real, to the make believe, and somewhere in between, as Mount Vernon's stewards struggled to teach their version of American History."—Rex Ellis, National Museum of African American History and Culture, The Journal of American History

"Mount Vernon boasts stories that number in the hundreds, but one of its most dramatic tales has been left untold until now. In Scott Casper's compelling narrative we see sectional crisis, Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction through the eyes of Sarah Johnson and the hundreds of other African Americans who lived and labored at the fabled shrine. The Mount Vernon that belonged to them as much as to Washington and his heirs now testifies to the signal importance of our nation's African American past."—Mary Kelley, Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan, and author of Learning to Stand and Speak

"George Washington's will freed his slaves, yet slavery remained at Mount Vernon. Beginning with this living paradox, Scott Casper tells a fascinating story about the African Americans who lived and worked at a national temple, challenging and tending the myths we still cherish about the home of our country's father."—Eric Rauchway, author of Blessed Among Nations

"Scott Casper's meticulous excavation of the lives of African-Americans at Mount Vernon holds invaluable lessons about the interplay between race and historical memory in American culture. Based on documents revealing everything from economic hardship and regional conflict to mismanagement and misplaced patriotism, the book also teaches us by example about the rewards of imaginative synthesis and interpretation."—Joan Shelley Rubin, University of Rochester

"In this impressively researched and highly readable book, Scott Casper provides a new and fascinating picture of one of our national shrines, the Mount Vernon estate of George Washington. For the first time, we understand the Washington family and their plantation from the vantage point of Mount Vernon's slave community and specifically through the life of Sarah Johnson who lived there for half a century. This is history at its best, revealing a world at Mount Vernon that few have ever known."—James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History, George Washington University, and author of The Landmarks of African American History

"A fascinating, detailed look at the lives of those African Americans who lived at Mount Vernon, focusing on Johnson, who spent more than 50 years there, both as a slave and as a free woman."—Booklist

"Schoolchildren, learning that George Washington freed his slaves when his wife died, may believe that slavery then ended at Mount Vernon, but this emancipation was not wholesale. Martha's slaves were not freed, and Mount Vernon remained a slave plantation. Historian Casper relates the complex tale of Mount Vernon's triple identities, 'home, workplace, and enduring, malleable national symbol,' via the lives of its black workers and residents, slave and free, and its owners while he restores African-Americans' essential roles as actors—both as historical persons doing the work of maintaining Mount Vernon and as theater, today playing the roles that maintain an illusion of 18th-century accuracy. Casper uncovers the full breadth of these African-Americans' lives. Sarah Johnson, for example, was not only a slave, a servant and an 'attendant to the public' decades after Washington's death; she was also a wife, mother, seamstress, landowner and default curator of the Mount Vernon residence. Casper succinctly relates how Washington's 18th-century estate became a 19th-century 'national shrine [and] site of reverent pilgrimage' and deftly integrates national political, social and technological transformations into his tale. Unanticipated links and unsolved mysteries engage, while Casper's cautious speculation and meticulous documentation make his book as trustworthy as it is fascinating."—Publishers Weekly

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Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon

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  • Scott E. Casper

  • Scott E. Casper is a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of Constructing American Lives, which won the 1999 Book History Prize from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing.