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ArlingtonRe-enactor takes nuanced view of Washington's legacy

Re-enactor takes nuanced view of Washington’s legacy

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Brenda Parker spent nearly two decades working at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, including seven portraying, for visitors, one of those enslaved by Washington on the plantation.

And at a recent appearance sponsored by the Woman’s Club of Arlington, she cut to the chase.

“Was Gen. Washington a good man? Was Gen. Washington a bad man?” she asked those in attendance at the recent gathering.

It is a topic Parker has pondered long and hard.


“This is the way I think of it,” she opined of the Founding Fathers who espoused the concept of liberty and equality yet used forced labor to maintain the agriculture-based economy of the nascent nation. “They were first and foremost human beings. They were capable of kind and good actions, they were capable of mean and cruel actions.”

“If I do something bad, does that make me bad? No,” Parker said. Washington, she went on, “did some good things – some very good things – and did some not so good things.”

“It’s a lot to think about,” acknowledged Parker, who presentation was attended by students from Our Savior Lutheran Church in Arlington as well as members of the woman’s club.

At Mount Vernon, Parker often would portray Caroline Branham, an enslaved wife and mother.

(“Why do we call them ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slaves’?” she asked her audience. “It’s returning their humanity back to them.”)

At the Woman’s Club program, Parker portrayed a seamstress who, at the turn of the 19th century, received her freedom from the Washington estate.

“I didn’t think the day would ever come,” the character noted. “A 100-percent, bona-fide free woman! I want to bring joy and hope. I’m going to do as much good as I possibly can.”

Also in character, Parker showed a sense of positivity, opening the presentation by celebrating the fact that “the birds are singing, the sky is somewhat clear . . . and I woke up on this side of the dirt!”

Her presentation drew praise from Woman’s Club of Arlington member Sandy Newton, who worked with Parker at Mount Vernon.

“I learned a lot from this wonderful woman,” Newton said.

George Washington was among 11 U.S. presidents who counted enslaved people among their retinue at some point in their lives. The last, perhaps ironically given his role in ending the institution of slavery in the Civil War, was Ulysses S. Grant.

As Parker noted, Washington’s relationship with the institution of slavery, if summed up in a single word, was complicated.

He was just a teenager when his father died, leaving him as part of his inheritance a group of enslaved persons. Their ranks grew through purchase and natural expansion, and were augmented by marriage to Martha Custis, who had inherited a life interest in some of her first husband’s enslaved people.

At George Washington’s death in 1799, there were 317 enslaved at Mount Vernon. For the 123 he had direct control over, Washington freed one (his personal valet, William Lee) immediately and set in motion the eventual emancipation of the rest over time. He also put in place, as required under Virginia law during that period, financial provisions to care for the young and the aged, and arranged that all would be instructed in a trade (and be taught to read and write) before being given their freedom as adults.

Many of the remainder who were enslaved at Mount Vernon when George Washington died came from Martha Washington’s dowry, but were hers only as a life estate. Considered property of the Custis estate, they were parceled out to various other members of the far-flung Custis family upon her death in 1802. Under the law of Virginia, Martha Washington had no power to grant their freedom.

In her remarks, Parker noted that the enslavement of people was accepted as an economic fact of life and codified in state and national law.
But “just because the law says you can doesn’t mean you should,” she retorted.

Though fully abolished in the U.S. in the 1860s, slavery would linger in other parts of the world, and in some corners continues, albeit without legal sanction, to this day.

Brazil in 1888 became the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, two years after Cuba embraced the same step.

Other parts of the world took longer. Among them: Morocco freed its enslaved people in 1922, Turkey in 1924, Ethiopia in 1935, Saudi Arabia in 1962, Oman in 1970. (Leaders of Qatar, which in theory had put an end to slavery in 1952, brought still-enslaved servants with them to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation a year later, according to one account.)

Mauritania, which in principle had made slavery illegal almost a century before but attached no criminal penalties to the practice, finally and fully enacted an abolition in 2007. And despite a blanket worldwide prohibition on slavery of any kind imposed by United Nations edict in 1948, it remains a very real fact of life in some parts of the world.

Estimates from various sources over the past two decades peg the number of those enslaved worldwide at between 20 million and 50 million, depending on who is doing the estimating and what definition of slavery is being used.

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