Last week I had the opportunity to tour George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. My nieces, 11 and 6, and I spent the day learning about Washington's life, viewing historical artifacts, visiting the mansion and the gardens and, most of all, marveling at the model of integrity and leadership he established as our nation’s first president.
However, I was most struck by an exhibit titled “The Dilemma of Slavery” and the slave burial ground which was officially dedicated at Mount Vernon in 1983. At the time of his death in 1799, Washington owned over 315 slaves. This bothered me in much the same way that visiting Monticello did in 2000, when I saw Thomas Jefferson’s grave and the burial place of his slaves.
I am conflicted about these two great men, true American patriots without whom we would not have become the great nation we are today. I've wondered how they could have been so noble and courageous as leaders of the American Revolution while engaging in the enslavement and abuse of other human beings.
Both men freed their slaves on their death beds. The Mt. Vernon slave gravesite is just down the hill from Washington’s tomb, and it’s marked by his words from his will: “It is my Will & Desire that all slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom.”
At one point my 6-year-old niece asked: “Why did George Washington own slaves when he was the president?” A profound question from a small girl. My response was that when the nation started, it did not live up to the promises made in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. I explained that in America, all men are to be created equal and endowed by God with certain rights and that we had made great progress toward that ideal when we elected our first black president last November. She smiled.
As I walked the grounds of Mt. Vernon, I was overcome with a series of emotions: humility at the price paid by Washington and others for our freedom; anger for the slaves who were stripped of their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness and now lay buried in unmarked graves; and great hope at the fact that I lived to see a black man become president, the symbol of our great nation around the world.
This Independence Day is special to me because I can see the story of America redefined for a new generation. I can see the wrongs of the past being righted by the promise of tomorrow. Despite my political disagreements with the current president, his election was rendered inevitable by the self-evident truths on which the nation was founded, and I am proud that we are living up to those truths.
Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and others got it wrong back in 1775 when they were drafting the Declaration of Independence, because they allowed the nation to start half-slave and half-free. But America should pat herself on the back this July Fourth weekend because the ideal of who we could become has been fulfilled in the election of a young man, ironically half white and half African, to the presidency of the United States. As he likes to say, only in America is such a story possible.
Sophia A. Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.