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

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

Scott E. Casper, . . Hill & Wang, $25 (286pp) ISBN 978-0-8090-8414-2

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. illus. (Feb.)