Washington’s will freed his slaves ‘without evasion, neglect or delay’

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Washington’s will freed his slaves ‘without evasion, neglect or delay’

April 25, 1996
by Pamela Cressey

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The Slave Memorial was dedicated more than 200 years after George Washington's will set the stage for Mrs. Washington's emancipation.

In the summer of 1799, just months before he passed away, George Washington made a census of the Mount Vernon estate slaves. The census documents that 316 African Americans worked on the five Washington farms. George, however, was not the sole "owner" of all these people. According to research provided by Mary V. Thompson, Curatorial Registrar at Mount Vernon, Martha owned 153 people, 40 were rented from a neighbor, and the remaining 123 Individuals were owned by George Washington.

According to biographer James Thomas Flexner, Washington agonized over a suitable plan for freeing his slaves during the last six years of his life. If he freed his slaves, many of whom were married to Martha's, families would be separated. Martha did not own her slaves outright, since she had inherited them from her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. According to his will, Martha and her children John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis each had a one-third share in the Custis estate. Therefore, Martha did not have the power to free the Custis slaves on the Mount Vernon estate.

Eventually, Washington chose a course of action which led to the freedom of the slaves held in his name. His will stated that "all Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom" upon the death of Mrs. Washington. He instructed his executors to provide for the people too old or sick to work at the time of their emancipation.

He was quite explicit in his will about these stipulations. He stated: "And I do moreover most pointedly and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors ...to see that this clause respecting Slaves...be religiously fulfilled at the Epock at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay...particularly as it respects the aged and infirm..."

This presently a difficult situation for Mrs. Washington, however. Many people's freedom depended upon her death. A year after Washington's death, she signed a deed of manumission for "Sundry Negroes."

Where did these people go? Some of the people named in the 1799 Mount Vernon census appear in Fairfax County and Alexandria free black registers. As you read through the registrations of the free African Americans (an 18th century law required such paperwork for free blacks in Virginia), several note that they were emancipated by Mrs. Washington.

Sambo Anderson was a carpenter with tattooed face and "ears rings which he informed me were made of real Guinea gold." He may have been from a Royal African family, and his name originally "Sambou," a common name in Senegal. He died at 100 years old in a house given him on Little Hunting Creek after supporting himself by hunting wild game for hotels and "respectable families." He also purchased and freed two relatives. Sambo and son William returned to the Mount Vernon estate to construct Washington's tomb in the 1830s. Today all the African Americans at Mount Vernon are honored by the Slave Memorial dedicated in 1983.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.