Maybe you'll say to yourself, "Yes, yes, slavery was bad. I need this book like I need another book about the Holocaust." I say, yes, you need to read this book. I needed to read this book. The word "slave" has the pejorative connotation of anonymity. The term "enslaved person or people" used throughout this book brings in humanity. Make no mistake--enslavement means that human beings were victimized and pressed into a lifetime of servitude. Carla McClafferty's meticulous research brings a few of such people to life.
Fifteen-year-old William Lee was purchased by Washington and became his valet or "body servant." He lived by his master's side, attending his every need at home in Mount Vernon and throughout the 8 years of warfare. Many historians believe he is standing dressed in his fine livery behind Washington in the painting by John Trumbull on the cover of this book. Even after Washington died and his will freed all his "chattel," William Lee stayed on at Mount Vernon with a pension.
George and Martha Washington believed that they treated their enslaved people well. They got them medical attention when they were sick. They gave some of the house workers days off to attend theatrical entertainment. They did not break up families if they could help it. Oney Maria Judge, was a "mulatto," (from the word "mule," a sterile hybrid bred from a horse and a donkey) who belonged to Martha Washington as part of her inheritance from her first husband when she was widowed, called her "dower" estate. The inheritance laws stipulated that Martha was not allowed to sell or free her enslaved people. Oney became Martha Washington's "lady's maid" and traveled with her to the various residences in New York and then Philadelphia after Washington became our first president.
In Pennsylvania, there was a law called the "Gradual Abolition Act" which allowed enslaved men and women to apply for freedom after living in the state for six months. Martha Washington was apprised of this law by a friend of her husband so that they could "game" the system by sending an enslaved servant to visit Mount Vernon or another southern state as the six month time limit approached thus resetting the clock back to zero when they returned. Despite being well-dressed and an intimate part of the Washington family, Oney got wind of a plan for her to go to Martha's granddaughter's estate when Martha Washington died. So one night, as the family sat down to dinner, Oney slipped out the door and disappeared into the busy streets of Philadelphia and onto a ship bound for New Hampshire. Martha Washington was hurt; couldn't understand why she had been abandoned by a girl she had sheltered. Despite attempts to catch her and bring her back, Oney Judge established a life and a family as a free woman. Freedom trumped the security of enslavement.
Ultimately, George Washington came to understand the evils of enslavement. And McClafferty tells of the outcomes of some of the lives she so beautifully chronicles in this book. She spent time interviewing some of their descendants, who are proudly reclaiming their family history.
Enslaved people were buried in unmarked graves at Mount Vernon. A new project by archaeologists is underway to reveal the site of each grave shaft. They systematically sift the top soil above the identified graves leaving them undisturbed so each occupant can continue to rest in piece as flowers are placed in recognition of a buried life.
Tears ran down my cheeks as I read of the care and love brought to this space of eternal rest. (Can you believe I'm crying over the work of archaeologists and their volunteers?) The power behind Carla Killough McClafferty's Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington's Mount Vernon comes from her dispassionate, sensitive, and respectful rendering of a story of people whose names we know as merchandise on a bill of sale.