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How Mt. Vernon's History Is Being Retold

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As America continues its reckoning with racial injustice, the question of how and what to memorialize comes up often. And at George Washington's Mount Vernon, where the Founding Father kept people enslaved, the conversations will likely get more uncomfortable. And some say it's a welcome change. Esther Ciammachilli from member station WAMU went to Mount Vernon and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADA NOISES)

ESTHER CIAMMACHILLI, BYLINE: As the head of African American interpretation at Mount Vernon, Brenda Parker helps tell the stories of the people who were enslaved here hundreds of years ago. One way she does it is by playing Caroline Branham, a former housemaid to George Washington. And this is how she explains to children how families were torn apart.

BRENDA PARKER: (As Caroline Branham) If your grandmother gave to you a dog and that dog did have a litter of puppies, it would be your choice to keep one, sell one and give one away as a gift. That's how we're thought about.

CIAMMACHILLI: She then switches out of character and explains to me the importance of making it real for the youngest visitors.

PARKER: Understandable enough for a child and the adult starts to get a little uncomfortable. But that's fine, and that's good (laughter) because this is uncomfortable.

CIAMMACHILLI: It's uncomfortable but not unprecedented for the conversation to change. What passes as history at Mount Vernon has evolved over the years. It's now less about extolling Washington's virtues and more about the lives of the people who worked and cared for this property. As a Black woman, this is personal for Parker.

PARKER: Because everything, everything was Washington centric. I get it. We're on his property. But if it weren't for us, he would not have had that property.

CIAMMACHILLI: Washington was only 11 years old when he inherited his first slaves. This was a surprise to visitor Chiara Galloway, who's only 13. After seeing the confined conditions of the slave quarters, she realized that having to share her bedroom wasn't so bad.

CHIARA: I kind of felt, like, upset that I had to. But now that I look at how they were treated, I feel, like, a lot worse for feeling how I did because I realized that they were treated a lot worse. And they had a lot smaller quarters, and they just had to do what they had to do to survive.

CIAMMACHILLI: The exhibit "Lives Bound Together: Slavery At George Washington's Mount Vernon" gives visitors a new understanding of the lived experiences of the enslaved people and how intertwined their lives were with Washington's. The massive glass entrance is emblazoned with their names, and a bust of America's first president is visible directly through it. Susan Schoelwer is the senior curator of the exhibit.

SUSAN SCHOELWER: You see Washington through the names of this community that surrounded him. And, arguably, what Washington accomplished relied upon what they did on an everyday basis.

CIAMMACHILLI: At the south end of the property, shrouded by tall trees, is the slave cemetery.

PARKER: It is my absolute favorite spot.

CIAMMACHILLI: Brenda Parker says she comes here to find solace and, sometimes, to sing to the ancestors.

PARKER: (Singing) Steal away to Jesus, steal away, steal away home.

CIAMMACHILLI: Archaeologists have uncovered 80 graves so far. Mount Vernon curators are looking to the cemetery and the stories of the enslaved people as a way to offer a more nuanced understanding of how the country got to this current moment of reckoning.

PARKER: (Singing) My Lord, he calls me. He calls me by the thunder. The trumpet sounds within my soul.

CIAMMACHILLI: For NPR News, I'm Esther Ciammachilli at Mount Vernon.

PARKER: (Singing) I ain't got long to stay here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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