Tag: Mount Vernon

BOOKS: “Never Caught” Tells Story of Ona Judge, Enslaved Woman who Escaped and Defied President Washington

512y-xth0ilarticle by Jennifer Schuessler via nytimes.com

MOUNT VERNON, Va. — The costumed characters at George Washington’s gracious estate here are used to handling all manner of awkward queries, whether about 18th-century privies or the first president’s teeth. So when a visitor recently asked an African-American re-enactor in a full skirt and head scarf if she knew Ona Judge, the woman didn’t miss a beat.

Judge’s escape from the presidential residence in Philadelphia in 1796 had been “a great embarrassment to General and Lady Washington,” the woman said, before offering her own view of the matter.“Ona was born free, like everybody,” she said. “It was this world that made her a slave.”

It’s always 1799 at Mount Vernon, where more than a million visitors annually see the property as it was just before Washington’s death, when his will famously freed all 123 of his slaves. That liberation did not apply to Ona Judge, one of 153 slaves held by Martha Washington.

But Judge, it turned out, evaded the Washingtons’ dogged (and sometimes illegal) efforts to recapture her, and would live quietly in New Hampshire for another 50 years. Now her story — and the challenge it offers to the notion that Washington somehow transcended the seamy reality of slaveholding — is having its fullest airing yet.  Judge is among the 19 enslaved people highlighted in “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” the first major exhibition at Mount Vernon dedicated to the topic (it runs through 2018, check link above for details).

She is also the subject of a book, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the author of “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” at George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, Va. (Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times)
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the author of “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” at George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, Va. (Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times)

Most scholars who have written about Judge’s escape have used it as a lens onto Washington’s evolving ideas about slavery. But “Never Caught,” published this Tuesday by 37 Ink, flips the perspective, focusing on what freedom meant to the people he kept in bondage. “We have the famous fugitives, like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass,” Ms. Dunbar, a professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, said in an interview in Mount Vernon’s 18th-century-style food court. “But decades before them, Ona Judge did this. I want people to know her story.”

Research on slavery has exploded in the two decades since Mount Vernon, Monticello and other founder home sites introduced slavery-themed tours and other prominent acknowledgments of the enslaved. “Lives Bound Together”  was originally going to fill one 1,100-square-foot room in the museum here, but soon expanded to include six other galleries normally dedicated to the decorative and fine arts, books and manuscripts.

An installation about Ona Judge, often referred to by the diminutive Oney, in the exhibition “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” (Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times)

The exhibition makes it clear just who poured from the elegant teapots and did the backbreaking work on the 8,000-acre estate. But integrating the harsh reality of slavery into the heroic story of Washington — “a leader of character,” as the title of the permanent exhibition across from the slavery show calls him — remains unfinished work, some scholars say. Continue reading “BOOKS: “Never Caught” Tells Story of Ona Judge, Enslaved Woman who Escaped and Defied President Washington”

Slave Quarters to be Rebuilt at James Madison’s Virginia Home to Give Truer Version of History

FILE - In this May 17, 2000 file photo, President James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia. Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia is planning a major refurbishment and a rebuilding of its slave quarters with a $10 million pledge from a leading Washington philanthropist and history buff. On Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014 businessman David Rubenstein will announce the gift to restore the home where Madison drafted ideas that became the US Constitution and Bill of Rights before he became the nation’s fourth president. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
FILE – In this May 17, 2000 file photo, President James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia. Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia is planning a major refurbishment and a rebuilding of its slave quarters with a $10 million pledge from a leading Washington philanthropist and history buff. On Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014 businessman David Rubenstein will announce the gift to restore the home where Madison drafted ideas that became the US Constitution and Bill of Rights before he became the nation’s fourth president. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Homes of slaves who served President James Madison at his Montpelier estate in Virginia will be rebuilt for the first time over the next five years, along with other refurbishments to the home of one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, thanks to a $10 million gift announced Saturday.

David Rubenstein, a leading Washington philanthropist and history buff, pledged the $3.5 million needed to rebuild the slave quarters next to the mansion in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another $6.5 million will be devoted to refurnishing parts of the home where Madison drafted ideas that would become the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

After widow Dolley Madison sold the estate in 1844, many family belongings were dispersed or sold, leaving some rooms mostly empty of period furnishings after the estate opened to visitors in 1987. Now, curators hope to recover or borrow artifacts from the fourth president’s family life to bring the estate back to life, said Montpelier Foundation President and CEO Kat Imhoff.

Rubenstein told The Associated Press he wanted to help make the estate more authentic. Montpelier could draw more visitors to learn about history, he said, if the house is fully restored and its slave quarters built out. It currently draws about 125,000 visitors a year. Last year, Rubenstein gave funds to recreate slave quarters on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation.

“It’s this dichotomy. You have people who were extraordinarily intelligent, well-informed, educated; they created this incredible country — Jefferson, Washington, Madison — yet they lived with this system of slavery. Jefferson, Washington and Madison all abhorred slavery, but they didn’t do, they couldn’t do much about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t deify our Founding Fathers without recognizing that they did participate in a system that had its terrible flaws.”

The donation marks a trifecta of gifts totaling $30 million to projects at Virginia’s oldest presidential sites. Last year Rubenstein gave $10 million gifts to both Jefferson’s Monticello estate and George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

Recreating Montpelier’s South Yard, where domestic slaves lived, as well as the basement areas of the mansion where they worked, will help tell a fuller version of history, Imhoff said.

“For folks that have been coming to any of these presidential sites, the fact that we’re bringing this complete American story back into the landscape I think is very important,” she said. “It is challenging, but I also think it’s that wonderful tension that we as Americans are embracing, that this is our history, that making the invisible visible is very important to us as a nation, and it will make a stronger American story.”

The slave quarters at Montpelier were cleared away 165 years ago and planted over with grass, but the site has not been disturbed since. Archaeologists plan to excavate the South Yard in public view to recover remnants of slave life to help illustrate new stories.

One of the slaves who lived in a cramped dwelling was Paul Jennings. He was born at Montpelier in 1799, and at the age of 10 moved with the Madisons to serve in the White House. He later wrote a book about his experience, which is considered the first White House memoir. Jennings recalled helping Dolley Madison save curtains, silver, documents and a famous portrait of George Washington when the British burned the White House in 1814.

Continue reading “Slave Quarters to be Rebuilt at James Madison’s Virginia Home to Give Truer Version of History”

‘Ask A Slave’ Web Series Creator Azie Mira Dungey Uses Satire To Educate the Ignorant About Slavery

ask a slave

Playing the role of a slave woman at one of the country’s top-tourist destinations, actress and comedian Azie Mira Dungey learned first hand how ignorant many Americans are about the institution of slavery.  For two years, Dungey worked part-time at George Washington‘s Mount Vernon mansion in Mount Vernon, Va., often portraying one of the slave women who worked inside of Washington’s home. The role required her to read countless books on the plantation’s history over a two month period before she started the job.

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Once she stepped into character, Dungey realized that she was more than just a recent New York University graduate milling around in a short-term gig until Hollywood called; instead, Dungey believed that she was something of a griot of Black history and took her role very seriously.

And her job wasn’t easy. Often, Dungey has had to answer challenging questions from mostly White tourists — all while staying in character.

During an exclusive interview with NewsOne, Dungey recalled the time someone asked, “What’s your favorite part of the plantation?” (Her answer: “My bed”) Then there was the guy who asked, “How did you get to be the house maid for such a distinguished Founding Father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?”

(Her answer: “Did I read the advertisement in the newspaper? Why yes. It said, ‘Wanted: One housemaid. No pay, preferably mulatto, saucy with breeding hips. Must work 18 hours a day. No holidays. But, you get to wear a pretty dress. And, if you’re lucky, you might to get carry some famous White man’s bastard child.’ So, you better believe I read that, ran over and said, ‘sign me up.’” ).

But not all of the obtuse questions came from White people.

After speaking to an older Black man about a runaway slave who attempted to flee Washington’s plantation, the man seemed shocked at the slave’s attempt at freedom. “He was like, ‘Wait a minute, why did he want to run away?’” Dungey recalls the man asking. “‘I thought that George Washington was a good slave owner.’”

“I just looked at him, like, Are you serious?… You can be the nicest in the world but people don’t want to be your slave. And the man was like, ‘Yeah, that’s true.’”

As aforementioned, though, as comical as some of the questions were, Dungey never broke character. Dungey was committed to ensuring that she conveyed the reality in which her character lived. In her role, Dungey realized that she may be one of the few people from whom they can get some sense of how Blacks lived during a very repressive period in American history.

“History is our narrative,” she said. “It shapes what we think of ourselves and our society. How it is controlled, and whose stories get told (or not told) has a strong effect on culture, and even on public policy. Black history is not a separate history or a less important one. Misconceptions about Black history and the modern Black experience is really dividing us politically and socially. If we don’t understand racism and where it comes from, how can we end it? How can we weed it out? We have to be critical of these things to make true progress.”

She left that job late last year and has since moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, but the two-year experience motivated her to turn the hilarity of the tourists’ ignorance into the YouTube web series “Ask A Slave.” As “Lizzie Mae,” Dungey sits in front of a TV and answers viewers’ questions about slavery and George Washington.

All of the questions are ones tourists actually asked while she was working at Mount Vernon.

Watch Episode 1 of “Ask A Slave” here:

Since going live with two videos Sept. 1, the first episode has garnered more than 301,100 views, while the second episode has more than 119,000 views. It’s not a bad start at all, especially considering that Dungey raised the funds for production herself.

Watch Episode 2 of “Ask A Slave” here:

Back in April, she raised $3,000 through the crowdsourcing site GoFundMe to shoot six episodes, which will be published on YouTube each Sunday. The series was directed by Jordan Black, creator of the improvised comedy web series “The Black Version.”  The first two episodes have gotten positive reviews from JezebelMadameNoire, as well as other sites, with Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman calling it “the best web series since “Drunk History.”

Continue reading “‘Ask A Slave’ Web Series Creator Azie Mira Dungey Uses Satire To Educate the Ignorant About Slavery”