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Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine Hardcover – January 22, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0809084142 ISBN-10: 0809084147 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (January 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809084147
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809084142
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.3 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,864,637 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
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Review

“Now, at last, Casper tells the story of the invisible men and women who worked the 8,000-acre riverfront estate for generations.... Casper deftly uses the limited sources available to depict Johnson’s life with an authenticity that is moving.” —The Washington Post
 
“A fascinating look at a national shrine from another angle…. Casper deftly weaves his story of slaves and free blacks of Mount Vernon into the larger story of the plantation and its owners.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“Scott E. Casper lays bare the unique narrative of America's first sacred shrine, capturing the dizzying complexity of an early American community largely unrecognized and misunderstood.” —The Christian Science Monitor
 
“His account is evenhanded and scrupulously detailed, yet always emotionally connected to the life of housekeeper Sarah Johnson (1844-1920) and dozens of other blacks, slave and free, who lived and worked at Mount Vernon for generations in virtual anonymity.” —The Los Angeles Times
 
“Meticulous and fascinating… People such as Sarah Johnson were essential to the successful transformation of Mount Vernon, but their personal stories have long been ignored and largely forgotten… There are lots of great stories here.” —The D.C. Examiner
 
“Casper decries the fact that the story of the blacks who were a key part of the estate’s existence has been overlooked. In painstaking detail that reflects his impressive research, Casper rectifies that failing by telling Sarah Johnson’s story and those of many other blacks at Mount Vernon through the eras of slavery, emancipation and freedom…. Casper has performed a great service by bringing to light the stories of these forgotten folks.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“An unexpected, revealing look at an enduring and complex national symbol through the lives of those who knew it best.” —Kirkus Reviews
 
“Unanticipated links and unsolved mysteries engage, while Casper's cautious speculation and meticulous documentation make his book as trustworthy as it is fascinating.” —Publishers Weekly
 
“Mount Vernon boasts stories that number in the hundreds, but one of its most dramatic tales has been left untold until now.  In Scott Casper’s compelling narrative we see sectional crisis, Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction through the eyes of Sarah Johnson and the hundreds other African Americans who lived and labored at the fabled shrine.  The Mount Vernon that belonged to them as much as to Washington and his heirs now testifies to the signal importance of our nation’s African American past.” —Mary Kelley, Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan, and author of Learning to Stand and Speak
 
“George Washington’s will freed his slaves, yet slavery remained at Mount Vernon.  Beginning with this living paradox, Scott Casper tells a fascinating story about the African Americans who lived and worked at a national temple, challenging and tending the myths we still cherish about the home of our country’s father.” —Eric Rauchway, author of Blessed Among Nations
 
“Scott Casper’s meticulous excavation of the lives of African-Americans at Mount Vernon holds invaluable lessons about the interplay between race and historical memory in American culture.  Based on documents revealing everything from economic hardship and regional conflict to mismanagement and misplaced patriotism, the book also teaches us by example about the rewards of imaginative synthesis and interpretation.” —Joan Shelley Rubin, University of Rochester
 
“In this impressively researched and highly readable book, Scott Casper provides a new and fascinating picture of one of our national shrines, the Mount Vernon estate of George Washington.  For the first time, we understand the Washington family and their plantation from the vantage point of Mount Vernon’s slave community and specifically though the life of Sarah Johnson who lived there for half a century.  This is history at its best, revealing a world at Mount Vernon that few have ever known.”—James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History, George Washington University, and author of The Landmarks of African American History

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on May 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a history of Mount Vernon following the death of George Washington. Because it is a story of the everyday life on and operation of the estate, it is a story of 200 years of African American history. There is a parallel history here too, about the pioneer days of the historic preservation movement.

Early vistors to Mount Vernon believed what they wanted to believe. Knowing Washington's will had freed his slaves (upon the death of Martha, who released them early) one could ignore reality and presume that those who labored in the field and encountered visitors were free. For 60 years it bubbles into public consciousness only every now and then that they are not.

In the first part of the book, Sarah is in the background as we learn about Washington's heirs, Martha's dower slaves, crops, the buying, selling and renting of people, and the precursors of the tourist trade yet to come. Sarah becomes the central vehicle for the story in the later half of the book. Sarah is a perfect vehicle for this history because her life illustrates her times.

Augustine Washington assumed control of this estate at age 21. From his mother, he received Sarah's mother Hannah, and noted her additions to his assets when she bore children. In 1844 he hired Hannah out to a cousin for $24 for the year. She returned from this forced labor pregnant and delivered a mulatto child naming her Sarah with her grandfather's last name, Parker. Later, when Mount Vernon was sold to a preservation society, which in part preserved it from the raveges of the Civil War, Sarah was also sold. In freedom she returned to her home, Mount Vernon, and became an employee of the new society.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia K. Robertson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 24, 2011
Format: Paperback
I'm the type of reader who wants to know the story after the story. So after reading Ron Chenow's Washington: A Life, I thought Sarah Johnson's Mt. Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine by Scott E. Casper to be a good choice.

Sarah Johnson was born a slave in 1844 belonging to Augustine Washington, one of George Washington's nephews. While long after Washington's death, she lived at Mt. Vernon over 50 years--longer than our nation's first president. Casper relates the history of Mt. Vernon after Washington's death. It was owned and managed for long periods of time by nephews Bushrod Washington and then Augustine Washington. When the house reached a level of shabbiness that Augustine had not the money to address, he sold the mansion and 200 acres to the newly formed Mt. Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA) in 1858. After the Civil War, the MVLA had trouble finding enough local employees, so they hired Sarah and many of her family and friends. She worked at Mt. Vernon until 1892, and even after that, she returned once a year to cook and care for the members of the MVLA at their annual meeting.

Casper tells parallel stories in Sarah Johnson's Mt. Vernon. There's the story of Mt. Vernon, the house. Washington didn't build Mt. Vernon, but he did make it what we see today. Nobody knew the house better than the former slaves who served the Washington nephews, and Sarah was often consulted about original features. There's the story of Mt. Vernon, the workplace. Although Sarah was freed after the Civil War, she often worked harder for the MVLA than she did as a slave. And then there is the story of Mt. Vernon, the shrine. The story of the MVLA is fascinating, and they should be given credit for purchasing and preserving Mt. Vernon.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Concord on January 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As other reviewers have noted the basic story here, I will note that Casper has found out a lot of information about African Americans who lived and worked on the grounds of Mount Vernon through the 1800s. He is not interested in trashing George Washington, but in getting at the lives of "unsung" people and then using their lives to discuss larger themes in American life. It's a nice blend of local and national history, with the emphasis on the local.

Two small points, one good, one less good. On the bright side there is humor here--especially the pilfering tourists who want to take just a little piece of the place home with them. My only complaint was that somehow I missed the point that the chapters were chronological in order, not by theme or person, and I was baffled for the first few dozen pages until I figured that out. Maybe my bad, maybe it could be clearer.
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By Jerry T. Wise on April 27, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
For me the history of the ownership of the Mt Vernon Mansion and its land was most interesting. I am about 2/3rds through the book and find it difficult to follow the life or history of Sarah Johnson. There are so many Sarah's in the book I forget what the book is about. I would recommend the book in that there are so few written about the life of Mount Vernon after the death of George Washington. I have always been fascinated by Mount Vernon as many are. Love the history in the book, hard to follow who is who.
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A good airing of "the rest of the story-" loaded with irony. The patriotic blinkers come off and you can appreciate other lives lived at Mount Vernon.
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